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Monday, January 2, 2012


Again, another tournament which was not covered at the time due to certain circumstances, but this competition, which served a double-purpose as the qualifying matches for both the OFC Nations Cup and as the preliminary round of qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, short as it was, threw up some surprises and also saw a little history being made.

Four countries took part; American Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga, and the hosts, Samoa, and all games took place between 22/11/11 and 26/11/11 at the JS Blatter Field in the Samoan capital of Apia.

American Samoa were expected by all and sundry, including your correspondent, to find themselves at the end of some heavy defeats after what had happened to them at the Pacific Games in New Caledonia less than three months earlier. Well, happily, that did not turn out to be the case. As a matter of fact, they made some history (not to mention a few friends) during this mini-tournament, starting off with a 2:1 victory against Tonga in the tournament's opening match.

Ramin Ott, who had hit the crossbar with a long-range effort earlier in the first-half, scored American Samoa's first goal in four years right on half-time. Shalom Luani extended the advantage with just over 15 minutes left, and although Unaloto Feao pulled one back during a late, late Tongan surge on Nicky Salapu's goal, the American Samoans held firm to earn their first-ever win against FIFA opposition.

Salapu, virtually the only survivor from his country's record-breaking 31:0 defeat to Australia in 2001, had twice denied the Tongans an equaliser in injury-time, and for him, the win was a particularly sweet moment. He had never played in an American Samoan team which had avoided defeat, and had come perilously close to achieving his first-ever clean sheet as national team custodian.

Salapu's team-mate, Joseph Saelua, also made history that day when he made his full international début. Saelua is reckoned to be the first transgender footballer ever to play in a full-international; he is fa'afafine, a third gender specific to Samoan and Polynesian culture, and he and his team-mates have, in their own small way, struck a blow for genuine all-inclusiveness in football, even though fa'afafine still face considerable prejudice across Polynesia.

Back to the football now, and in the second game of the preliminary tournament, hosts Samoa edged out a spirited Cook Islands side by the odd goal in five in a see-saw struggle of a game. Samoa dominated early on, and scored first through Luki Gosche mid-way through the first half. Before half-time, two more goals had been scored, Campbell Best levelling for the Cooks only to see Gosche put the hosts back in front more or less from the restart. With just five minutes left of the full 90, Best put the Cook Islands back on level terms, but Pati Bell broke their hearts two minutes into injury-time, sealing a rather fortuitous win for Samoa.

The Cook Islands fell behind once again in their next match against American Samoa, with Shalom Luani putting everybody's favourite underdogs a goal up after 25 minutes. Both teams were playing for the win, and Cook Islands received their share of luck when Paavo Mustonen's free-kick was headed into his own net by Tava Luvu just after the hour mark. However, they could not add to their tally and a final score of 1:1 meant virtual elimination from the tournament. For the American Samoans and their Dutch manager Thomas Röngen, however, things were going better than any of them could ever have possibly envisaged. Four points after two games, and a shot at qualification for the final stages of the OFC Nations Cup and the second round of 2014 World Cup qualifiers suddenly became a distinct possiblilty.
A draw between Tonga and Samoa would have been the perfect result for the American Samoans, and a 1:1 draw is what transpired. Just before the break, Shaun Easthorpe put the Samoans ahead from the spot after Desmond Fa'aiuaso was pulled dwn by Tonga's captain Folio Moeaki. Timote Maamaloa hit the post for the Tongans with just over 15 minutes left, while Unaloto Feao missed a sitter soon after. Substitute Lokoua Taufahema equalised with eight minutes left, and the Tongans could have won it right at the end, but Feao squandered a glorious opportunity when faced with a one-on-one with Masi Toetu, who saved Feao's effort relatively comfortably.

So near yet so far, and Tonga, under the tutelage of young Australian Chris Williams, were eliminated, but they avoided the wooden-spoon by defeating the Cook Islands 2:1 on the final day of competition. The rain came down in sheets, the pitch was a quagmire, but both teams went hell-for-leather for the three points. Tonga dominated the early stages, and Malakai Savieti almost got his name on the scoresheet but his goal-bound effort ended up stuck on the muddy goal-line and Cooks 'keeper Tony Jamieson gathered the ball.

His good fortune deserted him when ten minutes later, in the 27th minute, a speculative shot from Timote Maamaloa eluded the 37-year-old in the Cook Islands goal and it was first blood to Tonga. Grover Harmon bundled home a Mustonen free-kick in the 35th minute and the score remained at 1:1 until the 91st minute when Kinitoni Falatau chipped Jamieson for the winner. Tonga had something to shout about at last, and the players chaired Williams on to the pitch at the end of the game.

And so to what amounted to a local derby (in Pacific terms, at least) between Samoa and American Samoa. The hosts needed only a draw to go through, whilst American Samoa had to go for the win. It would have been some achievement for Röngen's team, what with American Samoa having a history of losing all 30 competitive matches played previous to this tournament, scoring just 12 goals and conceded 229. Could the underdogs pull off an upset unrivalled in the history of football in Oceania against the hosts and a team who were favourites to finish top of the group before a ball was kicked?

To their credit, American Samoa tried hard, but their near-neighbours dominated from the off, with American Samoa being restricted to the occasional long-range effort. Shots were raining in on the American Samoan goal, with Silao Malo and Desmond Fa'aiuaso among those being thwarted time after time by Nicky Salapu, and Salapu's team-mate, substitute Diamond Ott, almost put his team in front in the 81st minute when he beat Samoan goalkeeper Masi Toetu in a one-on-one, but not the post. The ball struck the outside of the post and trundled away to safety.
Still, the American Samoans were creating chances by then, and Ott had another one in the last minute of normal time, which Toetu saved well. A draw, which would have put Samoa through and ensured that American Samoa, although eliminated from both the OFC Nations Cup and 2014 World Cup qualifiers at once, would have ended the preliminary round undefeated, was suddenly looking likely.

Alas for the American Samoans and neutrals everywhere, it was not to be. Within seconds of Ott's saved shot, Samoa went straight down the pitch via a defence-splitting ball which found Fa'aiuaso, and his side-step and pass put Malo clear, and he slotted home to break American Samoan hearts and score what was, in all fairness, a more than deserved winner. Still, Röngen's team can content themselves with a job well done, and it augurs well for the future - if they are able to build it, and that will take time, effort and not a little financing.
Samoa, then, qualified for the finals of the 2012 OFC Nations Cup, which will also double up as the second phase of the qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup. The OFC Nations Cup tournament will be held in Fiji this coming June, where the Samoans will find themselves up against New Caledonia, Tahiti and Vanuatu in Group A. Group B consists of Fiji (hosts), eternal favourites New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.


22/11/11 American Samoa 2:1 Tonga
22/11/11 Cook Islands 2:3 Samoa
24/11/11 American Samoa 1:1 Cook Islands
24/11/11 Samoa 1:1 Tonga
26/11/11 Tonga 2:1 Cook Islands
26/11/11 Samoa 1:0 American Samoa

SAMOA 3/2/1/0/5/3/7/+2
TONGA 3/1/1/1/4/4/4/0
AMERICAN SAMOA 3/1/1/1/3/3/4/0
COOK ISLANDS 3/0/2/1/4/6/2/-2

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks go to the OFC and Priscilla Duncan for kindly allowing statistical information to be used. Action from the matches listed above is available to view on the OFC's channel on YouTube.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Pat. I like the blog, as I was specifically searching for something written about the tournament in Samoa in 2011. I was there 4 years ago for the 2007 World Cup qualifying tournament & South Pacific Games and loved it.

    I hope you had as good a time as I did in Apia.

    I write a blog with similar ideas to yours at & I write about my trips through Europe with Liverpool FC and other ideas about football.

    I hope this may be of interest to you & I will subscribe by email for any further articles you write.

    All the best