By this point they were beyond even humiliation. The bedraggled and deflated American Samoan team stood in a line, their baggy shirts flapping in the light evening breeze. With arms around each other’s shoulders they faced the appreciative Australian crowd and sang, in spite of the tears welling up in many of the players’ eyes. It was a song of pride, of defiance, of home. But home must have felt a long way off for the youthful squad who had just become world news, and not in a good way.
‘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. ‘I felt very embarrassed and like I don’t want to play soccer anymore.’
American Samoa were ranked as worst in the world at the time of their World Cup qualifying match with Australia in April 2001. Having become members of FIFA in 1998, the 2002 World Cup qualifiers were the first that they were eligible to take part in. In their three years as FIFA members up to that point, American Samoa had played eight matches – all at the distinctly un-rarefied level of the Polynesia Cup – and lost them all. Tahiti had inflicted the most damage in those clashes with 12-0 and 18-0 victories.
For the 2002 qualifiers, Oceania’s ten teams were split into two groups of five, without a preliminary round to weed out the weakest of the weak. American Samoa, along with their neighbours Samoa, Tonga and Fiji were put in a group with the relative might of Australia.
The Socceroos of Australia had narrowly missed out on the 1998 World Cup Finals, at the time under their English coach Terry Venables, contriving to throw qualification away by conceding two late goals to Iran when a place in the finals was all but assured. The scars from that trauma still ran deep when the subsequent tournament came around and Australia were determined to open their 2002 World Cup campaign in a professional and ruthless manner.
Thankfully for their opposition, the Australian squad was missing many of its top stars but their squad still featured the likes of John Aloisi of Coventry City, Hayden Foxe of West Ham United and Craig Moore and Tony Vidmar of Glasgow Rangers. The bigger names of Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer, Mark Viduka and Brett Emerton, among others, all remained at their clubs, not needed for this anticipated straightforward opening to the Socceroo’s World Cup campaign.
At the other end of the scale, for American Samoa a squad of twenty was selected to represent the worst team in world football as it made its maiden bow in the World Cup in the coastal Australian city of Coffs Harbour. The squad contained a mix of the best and most experienced players the islands had to offer, with a smattering of youth, unscarred by past failures. Making use of FIFA’s ‘grandparents clause’ with the approval of the OFC, the team selection contained several players originally hailing from neighbouring Samoa, formerly Western Samoa, but whose heritage or indeed current residency was American Samoan.
But then came the hammer blow, inflicted by FIFA. An eleventh hour intervention from football’s governing body ruled those players not holding a US passport, as fully-fledged American Samoans do, would be ineligible to play. Instantly nineteen of the twenty man squad were excluded, with only the twenty-year-old goalkeeper Nicky Salapu carrying the required document.
Plans to replace them with players from the national under-20 squad were also scuppered because the majority of them were sitting their high school exams at the time. They had to resort to using members of the youth squad, all US passport holders, were flown out post-haste. Mostly in their teenage years, three of the replacements were only fifteen years old. This patchwork national team produced a sixteen ‘man’ squad, joining goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, with an average age of just nineteen. Youthful, and inexperienced as they were, the World Cup was soon upon them.
Unsurprisingly, things got off to a bad start. A 13-0 defeat to Fiji was followed by an 8-0 loss to Samoa. Meanwhile the Aussie machine began in relentless style – on the same day as the clash between the two Samoas, Australia stormed their way into the record books with a 22-0 win; a new world record victory in international football.
Australia’s record win was greeted with much guffawing delight by the world’s observers, relishing the Socceroos’ record-breaking exploits. There would be no guffaws from the American Samoans however. They were up next. The unrelenting Australian behemoth was almost upon them. ‘We are here to learn. We have had a lot of problems but we don’t give up,’ American Samoa coach Tunoa Lui stated defiantly. A little more desperately he added, ‘We are asking the Lord to help keep the score down,’ The Lord would have his work cut out.
Match day arrived and the crowd in the Coffs Harbour International Stadium, a relatively sparse one on a warm autumnal weekday evening, were sat either in the small main stand alongside the touchline, or on grass banks circling the ends of the oval stadium. The smattering of fans sat back, supped their beers and settled in for the expected crushing Australian victory under the floodlights. There was a merciful ten minute period at the start of the match when the young Nicky Salapu, promoted to captaincy in the absence of all of his regular national team colleagues, kept Australia at bay with a string of fine early saves. Such defiance could never last though, 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.
Perhaps not surprising given the haphazard way that the American Samoan team had finally come about, there was little cohesion, organisation or positional discipline amongst the collection of teenagers on the pitch. The short, or almost non-existent, preparation time had left a team seemingly under-coached and unprepared. They ran around chasing Australian shadows, drawn to the ball like moths to a flame, or like schoolboys in an unorganised kick about. Schoolboys is what most of them were of course; young lambs to the slaughter, far out of their depth. According to Tony Langkilde, the team manager and Vice President of the Football Federation of American Samoa, some of those young lambs had never played a full ninety-minute game before. What chance did they have? They knew all along that anything other than defeat was impossible, but any chance at avoiding complete humiliation was by now long gone too.
By half time no fewer than sixteen goals had found their way past Salapu, making for a somewhat tricky half time team talk in the American Samoan dressing room. ‘It is very hard to pick your players up when they are so far behind at the interval,’ said Langkilde. ‘The only real change I told them to make was to be more aggressive and alert and not to give the ball away so much,’ he continued. Sadly, that was not an instruction that his players had the ability or the strength to carry out to any great effect. In the face of an opponent unwilling to step off the gas, the carnage continued unabated.
It was surely only a matter of time before Australia broke their own world record from days earlier. And in the 65th minute they did so when Archie Thompson, a hitherto relative unknown in only his third appearance for the Australian national team, scored his eleventh goal of the match and the team’s twenty-third. At 23-0 the world record had gone again, but most alarmingly there were still twenty-five minutes to go. The scoring continued with increasing regularity and by the end, the scoreboard displayed the final score as 32-0; a bit of over excitement on the part of its operators who had, in their excitement, apparently skipped straight from 27-0 to 29-0.
Once FIFA had consulted with the match officials the result was confirmed as 31-0 and Archie Thompson had bagged himself a whopping thirteen goals – another world record. The Australians had scored at a rate of one goal every two minutes and forty-five seconds, which is a simply astonishing rate. When you consider the time taken up by thirty-one restarts by a team who must surely have been delaying each kick-off for as long as possible, the strike rate is even quicker in terms of actual playing time.
In amongst the endless Australian onslaught, American Samoa did manage the very occasional foray upfield. And on one glorious occasion they finally brought a save from the otherwise utterly unemployed Australian goalkeeper Michael Petkovic. In the 86th minute, and already 29-0 down midfielder Pati Feagiai managed to send a weak shot in the direction of the Australian goal, prompting Petkovic to dive to his right to save it. It would be the only shot on goal managed by American Samoa all evening, and would be widely reported as the only time Petkovic touched the ball in the entire match. It was met with the biggest cheer of the night.
Utterly outclassed, American Samoa had just provided the most compelling and conclusive evidence for the accuracy of their lowly world ranking. As the Australian crowd warmly and sympathetically applauded their beaten opponents, the American Samoans were just starting to come to terms with having suffered the worst defeat in international football history, and by some margin. The 31-0 defeat would make a laughing stock of the American Samoans, gaining them an unwanted place on many an ‘and finally…’ segment of numerous global news outlets, as the world’s press treated them to repeated headlines focusing on the world record defeat.
Such a beating leaves its scars on its victims. Deep, psychological scars that would remain etched in the minds of some. The consequences of this defeat would linger with them, and indeed haunt them. None suffered more than the hapless Nicky Salapu who 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. In spite of picking the ball out of his net thirty-one times Salapu had, incredibly, done more than any of his team mates to keep the score down, yet couldn’t escape his thoughts that this was ‘the worst thing ever’. As heavy a defeat as it was, it could easily have been so much worse but for Salapu’s saves; around twenty in all. Described by his manager as ‘a very brave keeper’ who ‘kept the score down with a magnificent display’, he flung himself from pillar to post, desperately trying to stem the tide amidst the devastation in front of him.
He would return to his home in Seattle to be reminded of this match at every turn. Any conversation about American Samoa would inexorably lead to the question, ‘Oh, are you the guy that gave up thirty-one goals?’ His son was teased about it at school. Salapu himself would seek 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.
American Samoa completed their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 5-0 defeat to a Tonga side who were no doubt thoroughly relieved to have had their own world record defeat usurped so quickly. In all, fifty-seven goals were conceded by Nicky Salapu in the four matches, with no goals scored. Their search for an elusive first victory would go on for quite some time. As Langkilde lamented: ‘Football is a game of three possibilities: win, tie and loss. For us it is only a game of one possibility: loss. We have not had the other two possibilities yet.’