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Thursday, November 24, 2011


In the midst of all the brouhaha in the game of football about racism, the Champions League, the lifesyles of footballers' wives and girlfriends, corruption and much more, some things occur which put a more normal spin on things; things which make you realise that football is, after all, only a game, but a game which is living proof that every footballing dog (don't take it too literally, dear reader) has its day.

On those sorts of days, pundits much better than yours truly can be made to eat their words; yesterday was one of those days - it happened to your correspondent, who is quite happy to tuck into some humble pie - as, while much of the football-loving world lay tucked up in bed, a tiny set of islands in the South Pacific had something to celebrate.

I am, of course, referring to American Samoa, who, in the wee small hours of yesterday morning (GMT, BST and CET) took on Tonga in the opening match of the OFC Nations Cup/2014 World Cup preliminary round qualifiers. Prior to very early yesterday morning, which was still Tuesday afternoon in the Samoan capital of Apia, where all of the preliminary round matches will be taking place this week, American Samoa had never won, or even drawn against, FIFA-member opposition.

However, 22/11/11 will live long in the memory of football fans in American Samoa, because not only did their national team not only come away undefeated against the Tongans - whose manager, 25 year-old Australian Chris Williams, is probably the world's youngest national team coach - but they actually beat them by 2 goals to 1, gaining their first-ever points in a qualifying tournament, not to mention their first-ever victory.

It was, by all accounts, a very competitive game of football, with the American Samoans taking the game to their Tongan counterparts for much of the first-half; Ramin Ott's 33rd-minute free-kick which hit the bar was the closest American Samoa had come to scoring a goal for over four years, until the same player's speculative long-range effort which beat the flapping Tongan goalkeeper, Kaneti Felela, two minutes before the break signalled not only in the end of the American Samoan goal-drought, but also was to result in a surprise half-time lead for the tiny American territory. It was Ott's second-ever goal for his country.

They didn't rest on their laurels, the American Samoans, and after an end-to-end start to the second-half, they took the game by the scruff of the neck and scored again in the 74th minute through Shalom Luani, when he lobbed Felela after latching on to a through ball.

American Samoa almost gained their first-ever clean sheet in international football, but Unaloto Feao pulled a goal back for Tonga, heading the ball home at the back-post from a Lafaele Moala cross with two minutes to go to set up a frantic finish. Almost straight from the re-start, Moala came close to putting Tonga back on level terms, but his shot was easily saved by Nicky Salapu, who then came to American Samoa's rescue with seconds to go, saving again from the same player before Timote Maamaloa's goalbound sidefooted follow-up was blocked by Salapu's team-mate Johnny Saelua. The game was up for Tonga, and American Samoa could finally celebrate their first-ever official victory.

The victory was a sweet moment, a kind of redemption, for Nicky Salapu, who was the American Samoa goalkeeper when Australia defeated them 31:0 in that world-record defeat ten years ago. The 33 year-old was quoted in the New York Times as saying after the game against Tonga: "I feel like a champ right now. Finally I’m going to put the past behind me."

This result, sweet revenge for a 4:0 loss to Tonga at this summer's Pacific Games, which were held in New Caledonia, has indeed helped put a little bit of his, and American Samoa's, past competitive international footballing history to bed; in losing all of their previous 30 games, the team had conceded 229 goals while scoring just 12 themselves. The victory against Tonga was Salapu's 13th official international appearance (he also played in the 4:0 defeat to Tuvalu at this year's Pacific Games; Tuvalu's FA has not yet joined FIFA, so this match was not recognised as an oficial fixture), and he is widely regarded as being one of the country's best players, and possibly the best-known outside the American territory.

It was an historic day in another sense, not just for football in American Samoa, but for football around the world as defender Johnny Saelua, who made his début for the American Samoan side yesterday, also became what is believed to be the first transgender footballer to take part in a full international football match. Saelua is what is known in both Samoas as fa'afafine (males who, from a very young age, behave in a manner more traditionally associated with females), which, in Samoan - and Polynesian - culture, has long been regarded as a third gender. Saelua said that his team-mates had been very supportive of him: "The team accept me and we have that mutual respect, which is great. It’s all part of the culture."

Saelua's national team manager - and former boss of the USA under-20 side - the recently-appointed Dutchman Thomas Rongen said: "I’ve really got a female starting at center back. Can you imagine that in England or Spain?" Probably not, but one could probably imagine the headlines that will more than likely appear soon in The Sun, The Daily Mail or Bild, for instance.

Regardless, Saelua's inclusion in the American Samoa team is an encouraging step forward in (slowly) helping football recognise that it needs to become an all-inclusive sport. Johnny Saelua, whether he realises it or not, has moved mountains all by himself, and it is good to see that his inclusion in the American Samoa team has, if it has far from brought about the death of homophobia in football, perhaps brought the subject of tackling homophobia in the game that little bit higher up the footballing agenda. Everything has to start somewhere. It may also help the stature of fa'afafine, not only in American Samoa, but throughout the rest of Polynesia.

Back to matters pertaining to the fortunes of the team, and the arrival of Thomas Rongen in American Samoa shook things up somewhat for the nation's footballers. Rongen, a native of Amsterdam, was a youth-team player at Ajax and later played for some of the bigger clubs in the now-defunct NASL (North American Soccer League), only joined the American Samoan set-up at the end of last month after being recommended to the local association by US Soccer, who had actually sacked him as manager of their under-20 national team at the beginning of May but still had him on their pay-roll.

"When I got here, I had never seen a lower standard of international football," he said this week. He soon set about trying to change that. Prior to leaving for Apia last Saturday, the American Samoan national side had spent four days cooped up in a training camp at the national stadium in Pago Pago, and previous to that, Rongen had been busy viewing potential squad members and holding daily training sessions since his arrival in American Samoa on 27/10/11.

There are others besides Rongen who are showing an acute interest in the American Samoa side. A film-crew has been following the American Samoa team's progress over the past couple of weeks and will shortly be compiling the best bits into a documentary; the project, a collaboration between two independent British organisations, Agile Films and Archer's Mark, is called "Next Goal Wins", and, all being well, there will be more news of that on this blog to come.

In Tuesday afternoon's other game in the OFC/World Cup preliminary round, hosts Samoa defeated the Cook Islands 3:2 in what was a see-saw encounter. Luki Gosche put the Samoans in front after 20 minutes later, and it could have been 2:0 to Samoa seven minutes later after the Cook Islands' goalkeeper, Iona Lupena, fouled Desmond Fa'aiuaso, but Lupena immediately made amends for his eror, saving Silao Malo's spot-kick. 

Campbell Best tapped in the Cooks' equaliser sixteen minutes later, but the parity was far from constant; just a minute after their equaliser, the Cook Islands found themselves a goal in arrears once more after Gosche scored his second for the Samoans. Gosche's second was identical to his first; netting after finding himself in a one-on-one situation with Lupena.

Best was on target again with just five minutes left to level things up once again after latching on to a fumble from Lupena's opposite number, Masi Toetu. However, but Pati Bell scored a dramatic winner in second minute of injury-time, firing a shot across Lupena, to settle matters in Samoa's favour and break the hearts of the Cook Islanders.

It will be the Cook Islanders who are next in American Samoa's sights in the Thursday afternoon kick-off in Apia. For the Cooks, managed by New Zealand ex-international Shane Rufer (brother of the more famous Wynton, who played professional football for several years in Europe and appeared at the 1982 World Cup Finals), defeat will mean elimination from both the OFC Nations Cup and the World Cup. Before the prelims kicked off, this game would have been regarded as American Samoa's best chance to get something on the board. Now, it has become an opportunity to help turn Saturday's game against their near-neighbours Samoa into a potential winner-takes-all contest.

Meanwhile, Samoa take on Tonga in Thursday's late kick-off at the Tofeoloa JS Blatter Field in Apia, and it would be hard to envisage anything other than a hard-earned win for the Samoans. However, a win for Chris Williams' Tongan charges would not only be a compensation of sorts for Tuesday's defeat, but it would put them back in the frame while blowing the whole group wide open.

Although the American Samoans are still understandably buoyant after their victory against the Tongans, Thomas Rongen still has his feet firmly on the ground, and had this to say on Tuesday: "We still have two good teams to play in Samoa and Cook Islands, both of whom we respect tremendously. I have only been working with the players for three weeks which is not a long time to put a team together but long enough to make a change. I hope that we can improve our standings in the FIFA rankings and get into the hundreds. We are 204 at the moment [on the FIFA ranking-list] and the win will have helped."

Rongen is right, of course, to remain realistic, but at least Nicky Salapu and the rest of the American Samoan squad finally have something to celebrate, and their first-ever victory will see them move up the FIFA ranking-list next month for the first time ever, modest as the improvement will be. A victory against the Cook Islands on Thursday afternoon will simply leave them in dreamland, and leave this humble scribe's pre-tournament prediction looking even more ridiculous. 

Will American Samoa's win on Tuesday prove to be a turning-point in the history - not to mention the status - of football in the islands or merely a fluke? The players and staff certainly enjoyed the moment; Rongen has provided the know-how and the kick up the backside that the game in American Samoa patently needed. There may be more days for the dog to enjoy in the future, but the rest is up to the players and those running the FFAS, not just in a few hours' time or even on Saturday, but in the months and years to come. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's back to the humble-pie, which is going down quite nicely this time around..

AUTHOR'S NOTE: As ever, thanks are due to the OFC and Priscilla Duncan in particular; visit for more information about the dual-purpose qualifying series and football in the Pacific island nations in general. Other info was culled from articles in the New York Times; here's the link to their take on American Samoa's victory:

For those with gender issues who wish to find out more about the fa'afafine, there is an article covering the subject on Wikipedia, the following links to fa'afafine organisations are below, the first relates to one in Samoa, while the second organisation is based in American Samoa:

Match highlights can be viewed here (courtesy of the OFC via YouTube and also thanks to Stefan Cerrocchi):


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