Category: American Samoa

For most countries, a total of one point and one goal scored from five games would represent nothing but complete disaster. However, American Samoa are not most countries, and the spirited performances of the islands’ youngsters at the recent Oceania under-20 Championship in Fiji have offered hope for the team’s future – not least due to the emergence of promising forward Ryan Paaga.

The American Samoans’ performances and results in their opening two games will have particularly pleased coach Rupeni Luvu, providing hope that Thomas Rongen’s legacy with the senior team, one of higher professionalism and fitness levels that led to the team almost emerging from their preliminary qualifying group for the World Cup, can be replicated by all of the islands’ teams. Luvu’s boys kicked off the tournament in the Fijian capital with a 4-0 defeat, against the hosts and eventual winners, all the goals coming in the first half. Fiji would go on to qualify for the FIFA under-20 World Cup finals (with New Zealand automatically qualifying as hosts), making this result seem almost respectable.

However, very few would have foreseen American Samoa holding Papua New Guinea, coached by Oceania Footballer of the Century Wynton Rufer, to a draw two days later. The underdogs drew first blood through Sinisa Tua in first-half stoppage time, but they could well have had a penalty after just five minutes when Paaga went down under PNG goalkeeper Koniel Vagi’s challenge after racing through on goal. PNG’s blushes were somewhat spared by Frederick Simongi’s equaliser on the hour but despite having Rafael Rocha sent off late on for scrapping with a PNG substitute, American Samoa held on for a historic result: it is the first time they have avoided defeat in an under-20 game.

Keeper Maiava leads the team's pre-game huddle (pic: Brian Vitolio)

Keeper Maiava leads the team’s pre-game huddle (pic: Brian Vitolio)

Unfortunately, Luvu’s charges ran out of steam somewhat in the second half of the tournament, going down 4-0 to Vanuatu on 27th May and 5-0 to the Solomon Islands two days after that, although two of the Solomons’ goals were scored in the last 15  minutes. In their final game against New Caledonia, American Samoa were thrashed 9-0, though five of those goals were leaked in the second half as tiredness kicked in. That result may taint the success of the Papua New Guinea game, but it is clear that progress has been made: with the portly but likable Frederick Maiava between the posts, the under-20s set a national record for the longest time without conceding – 103 minutes across the second half of the Fiji game and the first hour against PNG.

Ryan Paaga epitomises this progress as much as anyone. Athletically gifted and with the raw skill to trouble defences, Paaga was American Samoa’s biggest goal threat throughout the tournament and can consider himself unfortunate not to have returned home with a first international goal to his name. If promising sportsmen like Paaga offer the biggest opportunity to the Football Federation American Samoa (FFAS), they also represent the biggest threat. The seventeen-year-old is equally gifted at rugby sevens and it is clear that the FFAS will have to do battle with the islands’ other sports federations to secure his services for future internationals.

Indeed, Paaga says the FFAS wasted little time in drafting him into the squad for Fiji upon his return from a  rugby tournament in Hong Kong, but he regrets that his sporting versatility makes it difficult to focus on one code in particular: “When I came back from Hong Kong the soccer federation contacted me to select me for this team…[I’ve] never really played soccer much…it’s tough for me because so many people want me to play rugby for their team, so I don’t get time to practice my soccer skills as much.”

Paaga has attracted interest from Samoan media for his American football exploits (pic: Samoa News)

Paaga has attracted interest from Samoan media for his American football exploits (pic: Samoa News)

Aside from the impressiveness of Paaga performing the most difficult role at the tournament – lone striker in a team that often strings every other outfield player across their own penalty area – so admirably, it shows that the FFAS faces almost a sporting cannibalism from the islands’ other governing bodies. Last year fellow forward and then-seventeen-year-old Shalom Luani starred as the senior team claimed their first ever international win, a 2-1 success over Tonga, and Luani’s two goals in the three-game World Cup qualifying series made him the country’s joint-top all-time scorer. The parallels to Paaga are uncanny, and Luani’s time is similarly divided between football and American football, though recently it seems the second sport is dominating his engagements.

Luani moved to Chabot College of California in 2012 and Paaga has also admitted his desire to win a scholarship to the U.S. mainland. Though it would be wrong to stand in the youngsters’ way as they seek to further their careers in a more competitive environment, the diaspora of the islands’ talent represents a big headache for the FFAS; getting players back from the mainland to play in friendlies or qualifiers is difficult financially and logistically.

For now at least, Luvu and FFAS chairman Tavita Taumua will be pleased that the leaps achieved by Rongen are now being replicated at youth levels. A  pairing of Paaga and Luani in attack would trouble any defence in the region and, with a blend of experience and promise behind them, is surely the way forward. It will be years before American Samoa can truly challenge for World Cup qualification, but if regular games are scheduled, and if the FFAS can promote football above the islands’ other sports, the 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001 that has haunted this team for so long can finally be consigned to the history books.

After experiencing the delight of their first ever official win in November 2011, American Samoa must have entered the 2012 London Olympic qualifiers with high hopes and increased confidence. After a run of 30 consecutive defeats, the minnows had beaten Tonga and matched the Cook Islands in a 1-1 draw. The players could have been forgiven for thinking that their days of suffering the humiliation of double-figure thrashings and enduring four-year goal droughts were over.

Unfortunately not. Although American Samoa’s under-23 team, which would compete in the qualifiers, has enjoyed less success and practice than the senior side, American Samoans would still have been confident that progress would continue. Drawn in a group containing regional heavyweights Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, American Samoa had the chance to prove their development into a competitive nation in the Oceania confederation.

This optimism would have been lessened, but not eradicated, by the half-time score-line in the team’s opening game against Vanuatu. 4-0 down after just 23 minutes, American Samoa recovered to match their stronger opponents for the remainder of the half. Samoans would not have been shocked to find their team trailing heavily but would have hoped for a goalless second half that would have underlined the side’s progress.

Even the attentions of two defenders can’t prevent Vanuatu’s Sailas Namatak from claiming a hat-trick

American Samoa almost did just that – had the match only lasted 80 minutes rather than 90, 4-0 would have been the respectable result. However, the side tired and their resistance was emphatically ended with 4 goals in the last nine minutes. The result was disappointing but not unexpected. The Blues now needed to pick themselves up and fast – the next game, against Fiji, was scheduled in just two days time.

The Fiji match bore some similarities to their encounter with Vanuatu. Again, American Samoa conceded early on, but this time they held out until half-time for an incredible 1-0 score-line. A narrow defeat to arguably Oceania’s best country after New Zealand would have ranked among American Samoa’s best achievements on the world stage, but again, it was not to be. Six second-half Fiji goals, interrupted only by an Ailoa Tualaulelei consolation to bring it back to 5-1, again left the Samoans demoralized and defeated. Make no doubt about it, this Fiji team was talented – they would go on to reach the final, only losing 1-0 to clear favourites New Zealand.

So it was with low expectation and confidence that the Samoan players would have entered their final fixture, against the Solomon Islands on 21 March. However, they would probably have expected a closer game than their last two matches – Solomon Islands had also lost both of their games, albeit by only one or two goals as opposed to American Samoa’s six or eight. Both teams were already eliminated and optimistic Samoans may have hoped to encounter an unmotivated, low-on-belief Solomon team that was there for the taking.

American Samoa captain Jr Amisone tries in vain to stop New Zealand-based Jerry Donga

What followed was American Samoa’s worst result since August 2007. A return to the dark days of double-figure hammerings loomed large on the horizon as the minnows were blown away by a surprisingly determined Solomon team. Five minutes in, and one goal to the good thanks to Shalom Luani’s strike, Samoans were dreaming of what would have been the best result in their history. Eighty-five minutes later, they fully appreciated the reasoning behind their opponent’s nickname, the Blue Brazil. In the space of 77 minutes, American Samoan goalkeeper Satila Tupua saw 16 shots fly past him into the net as the Solomons equalised, took the lead, and then scored 14 more for measure.

Five days after the tournament began, American Samoa were eliminated and embarrassed. The progress shown in November had stagnated here and it was clear that the success enjoyed at senior level was not to be replicated in the country’s youth sides.

However, American Samoa can take some consolation from their five days of disaster. Their first-half performances against all three sides, as well as the fact that two goals were scored, showed that future victories are possible. They may have taken one step forward and two steps back, but don’t be surprised to hear another shock wave from Samoa when the side next takes to the field.

American Samoa, a tiny US territory with a population of just 55,000, recently hit the headlines after winning their first FIFA-sanctioned game. This success, a 2-1 “giantkilling” of fellow minnows Tonga, ended a mammoth 30-game losing streak and brought relative fame (if only for the allocated 15 minutes) to the team and country.

The national side had only previously been acknowledged by worldwide media in 2001 after an infamous 31-0 loss to Australia. Many labelled the side as hopeless and the notion that the team’s players had never kicked a ball between them was created. However, many also failed to realise that American Samoa, already huge underdogs against Oceania’s largest side, were forced to field their youth team after passport issues with senior players. Just one of their original 20-man squad was eligible for the game  – goalkeeper Nicky Salapu – part-time international footballer, part-time Seattle supermarket worker. American Samoa were also forced to field three 15 year olds as many of their under-20 side were unavailable.

Even the name of the country's FA, Football Federation American Samoa, seems backward

Since that loss, American Samoa had seemed to be making little progress, losing routinely and heavily against the likes of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. In a country where American Football appears to be more popular, coupled with a smaller population than most of their opponents, this may not appear to be much of a surprise, but this incredible losing run earned the side a kind of cult following – well as much is as possible for a tiny island in the Pacific. People from across the world marveled at the haplessness of the team and decided to follow their seemingly hopeless plight.

The 2011 Pacific Games brought further misery for the players but further joy for the cult following that seemed to revel in American Samoa’s prolonged pain, celebrating each 10-0 loss as some kind of joke. The cult following were happy for the side to lose every game – should American Samoa somehow manage a victory, the enjoyment and humour extracted from following them would be lessened.

A narrow 4-0 loss to fellow no-hopers Tuvalu, a side coached by former Holland U-21 boss Foppe de Haan, seemed promising and bearable, and the same scoreline against the Solomon Islands was viewed as something of an achievement. A close 2-0 defeat to Guam showed considerable improvement from previous competitions but against regional heavyweights New Caledonia and Vanuatu, Iofi Lalogafuafua’s men went down 8-0, inevitably finishing bottom of their group with no points.

Their overseas “fans” rejoiced in another comically bad tournament for the Samoans, but many of the players had had their last opportunity to experience a win at international level – too old to play in future tournaments, they would be consigned to history as part of a side that became the laughing stock of international football.

What a shock then, when on 23 November 2011, the side managed the unthinkable and defeated Tonga 2-1 to scenes of jubilation and disbelief in Apia, Samoa, where the game was held. Many of the cult following probably had the opposite reaction – now they needed a new team to mock in pretend support, someone to patronise with fake encouragement.

American Samoa celebrate their first official win in November 2011

It was no coincidence that the win came soon after the appointment of former D.C. United, Chivas USA and US U-20 coach Thomas Rongen, who clearly instilled belief and tactics to the side. After the win, Rongen stated “This is going to be part of soccer history, like the 31-0 against Australia was part of history”. He recognised that the team had come the full circle in media coverage – mocked for their sheer inability to compete in 2001, they were now being praised for an improbable victory against favoured opponents.

While winning in itself seemed distinctly unlike American Samoa, the fact that the second, clinching goal was tellingly scored by Shalom Luani, a 17 year old defender-turned striker, showed that American Samoa has not changed – it has merely evolved. And good for them.