If there is one person who personifies American Samoa’s travails as the Worst in the World, and their eventual escape from it, it is Nicky Salapu. As the youthful goalkeeper who conceded a record-breaking thirty-one goals in one international, he has known more than his fair share of sporting anguish. And boy has he has suffered for it The humiliation, the demons, the global ridicule. He’s had it all. And yet he found redemption in the very same tournament that had given him his darkest hour: World Cup qualification. All told, the induction of Nicky Salapu into the Worst in the World Hall of Fame is an obvious, straightforward decision.
His career with his national team was book-ended by the two most significant moments in their history – the 31-0 defeat to Australia in 2001, and the first ever victory, coming against Tonga in 2011. Both tales are fascinating insights into the lower reaches of international football and the people involved.
In the Oceania region qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup, American Samoa were set to make their debut in the world’s premier tournament. In a slightly misguided move, the power brokers of the Oceania Football Confederation decided that the huge disparity in standard in the region wasn’t cause for a preliminary round. Instead, the ten teams would be split into two groups, one headed by Australia and the other by New Zealand, with the winners progressing to a playoff to find Oceania’s winner. (Another playoff would then be required for qualification, but such matters were a long way from the minds of the American Samoans.)
American Samoa were placed alongside Australia and a few of their South Pacific cousins. A hard enough task in its own right, but when FIFA ruled all but one of American Samoa’s squad ineligible due to passport issues, things got instantly more difficult. The last remaining member of their full squad? The twenty-year-old goalkeeper, Nicky Salapu. They couldn’t even bring in member of the under-20 squad to replace the first-teamers as most of them were sitting their high school exams at the time. So replacements were sought from the youth squad. Suddenly Nicky Salapu was promoted to captain and had to face the might of Australia alongside a babble of untried teenagers. What could possibly go wrong?
In the face of it all, Salapu played a blinder. He made save after save; twenty in all. He held out for 10 glorious minutes, making a striong of early saves, including an acrobatic tip over the bar from Aurelio Vidmar’s shot. Such defiance could never last, and once the back line was first breached in the tenth minute by Con Boutsianis the floodgates didn’t merely nudge open, they completely fell apart, smashed asunder by the onrushing Australian tide.
The goals rained in from all sides, all angles and in all manners. There were goals from neat flicks and towering headers. Goals from distance and from close in and at least a dozen, if not more, simple tap-ins. All the while, the luckless Nicky Salapu seemingly slumped further and further into despair; shorn of his regular teammates he was offered virtually no protection by the inexperienced, overawed, and frankly startled teenagers ahead of him. For a partisan sporting nation such as Australia, the crowd took the unusual step of switching cheers, if not allegiances, to their utterly outgunned opponents. American Samoans were cheered if they completed passes or made an interception and were treated to standing ovations at both half time and full time. Each save from Salapu, and there were a great many amongst the carnage, was met with applause as resounding as each Australian goal; his effort and ability appreciated despite its apparent fruitlessness and futility.
The record-breaking scoreline of 31-0 was eventually reached, and American Samoa’s humiliation was complete. ‘After the game we walked into the locker room, I bowed my head down and I cried a little bit,’ the goalkeeper Nicky Salapu recalled years later in an interview with the Born Offside website. ‘I felt very embarrassed and like I don’t want to play soccer anymore.’ As heavy a defeat as it was, it could easily have been so much worse but for Salapu’s saves as he desperately tried to stem the tide amidst the devastation in front of him.
None of the players that day would suffer more than Salapu and he would carry the demons with him for years. Emotional wounds that would be opened again and again as his name became synonymous with the defeat; ‘the worst thing ever’ as Salapu described it. Amidst all the years of teasing that followed, Salapu sought to exorcise the demons by repeatedly taking on Australia on his Playstation, scoring goal after goal for American Samoa against an unmanned opposition, the second controller sitting idly by his side.
A decade later, and Salapu had still known nothing but defeat for American Samoa and had had enough. He called time on his international career after another disappointing tournament – that time it was the 2011 Pacific Games. More defeat, more frequent goal concessions, more disappointment.
But as the World Cup qualifiers loomed once more just a few months later, this time for the Brazil 2014 World Cup, Salapu was persuaded to change his mind. The newly installed coach of the national team was Thomas Rongen, a professional coach supplied by the US Soccer Federation to assist the American Samoans.
‘I called him and asked him to come back, to shed his demons,’ said Rongen. ‘It was a big gamble. I had no idea when I called him how driven he would be, how motivated he was. I had one goalie who could have probably done an adequate job for us, but Nicky was the only player from the 31-0 loss. Everyone knew of him. He became a true inspiration – almost like we owe it to Nicky to work hard and do something special.’
‘I needed somebody there who could represent the battle scars of the team,’ Rongen continued. ‘When training didn’t go well, I just had to remind them that Nicky was here and that he had been reliving that game for all these years, and if he can exorcise his demons then so can the team.’
And what demons they were. ‘He asked me if I wanted to remove the embarrassment of that game, the 31-0 to Australia,’ Salapu recalled. ‘He said this was a good moment, that he was a professional coach, that we had good players and some from here in the States. He kept telling me all these things. I was working hard for my family, they really needed me. I didn’t feel like going. When he told me all these things, and telling me he wanted to put the embarrassment of the 31-0 to the side and become winners. I was like, “ok, this will be the best moment to go back and come out of the embarrassment.” I’m glad he called me.’
‘Those guys have been in some battles, and none more so than Nicky,’ Rongen added. ‘For him, it’s all about showing the world that this country, not only himself but the team, can do something. That we can win a game. That we aren’t losers.’
So Nicky Salapu took leave from his job repairing cables for AT&T in Seattle and put his gloves on to face his psychological torment once more. Reversing his retirement decision and leaving his family was clearly a tough choice to make, but if he was ever to finally vanquish the ghosts and banish the demons of his past, he had to face them one last time. ‘I want to win a game. If we win, I’d die a happy person,’ he added. ‘I’m just trying to prove we’re not the same team anymore. Going back, it’s a big sacrifice. This tournament is very important for me. This is something that I was dreaming about, you know. I love my family very much and this is the chance for me to make them proud.’ There was always the underlying sense that his fragile state of mind would struggle to cope with another humiliation.
The mental trauma waged by the memory of all those defeats lingered not only in Salapu’s psyche, but also in the minds of many of his younger colleagues who may not have been a part of the 31-0 defeat, but had known nothing other than defeat with the national team. ‘A lot of the guys who have lost every game – not 2-1, or 3-2 but they’d get their asses kicked on a regular basis. So there was a defeatist attitude which I really had to change,’ commented Rongen. He had to fight the all-enveloping attitude going into games that if they could keep the score below ten, then they had done well. But it was Salapu who was the most conflicted. ‘This guy,’ Rongen said with a shake of the head, ‘has got some major demons going on, totally driven by the thirty-one-nothing, erasing this for himself and his family. He is so preoccupied about it, almost crazed. There’s some incredible scars.’
After a rather more professional build-up and a hearty dose of inspiration, the tournament proved to be an unprecedented triumph for American Samoa. They did get their victory, a first ever for the South Pacific nation. It came in their opening match, 2-1 over Tonga. They couldn’t quite grab another win but it was followed by a draw with the Cook Islands and a narrow one goal loss to neighbours Samoa. American Samoa just missed out on wining the group and progressing to the next round of qualification. But it was that single victory that was the most therapeutic for the whole team, but Salapu in particular. After thirty defeats, they had finally won a game. At the final whistle of the Tonga match Nicky Salapu buried his face buried deep into his gloved hands, stifling his screams that owed as much to what had happened ten years earlier as they did to what had just occurred. After all his hurt and humiliation he found it hard to take in: ‘It’s like a miracle, but it’s not a miracle. It’s very emotional right now, it’s overwhelming.’
His teammates performed a celebratory post match haka, the siva tau, in the centre of the pitch. The joy, the relief, the release was palpable. Salapu stood to one side and watched, lost in his own thoughts. ‘Finally, I’m going to put the past behind me,’ he said. ‘I can live my life again. I feel like I’m just released from prison.’ After the Cook Islands draw, when victory was thrown away by a careless own goal that gave Salapu no chance, Rongen had been initially angry with his team. Salapu had meekly asked if they could do their haka afterwards which was met with a disbelieving response from his coach. To him, they had missed out on a win, and had to settle for a draw. To Salapu, it was only the second time he hadn’t lost. He wanted to celebrate what was still a remarkable achievement. Such are the difference in perception given all that had gone before for Salapu.
But later, Rongen was effusive in his thoughts on Salapu’s redemption. ‘The first thing after the game, he looked to me,’ he said of Salapu. ‘He was crying, and said “I can now tell my children that I’m a winner”, and that is bigger than the game itself quite frankly.’
‘I think right now I’m a free man.’ Salapu said. ‘It feels really good.’