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? Continue reading