Forget Lionel Messi. Forget David Beckham. Forget Cristiano Ronaldo. Forget Barça, Real, Man United, Bayern, AC Milan. While, admitted, they play very nice attractive football, this is not pure sport anymore. It is business. Players are, in times that people suffer from economical crisis and financial uncertainty, paid outrageous wages, and football has become so commercialised the big clubs became corporations with players as employees and fans as customers.
To find the real spirit, the pure football, you have to take a leap into amateur football. And the early stages of the World Cup qualifiers offer just that opportunity. It is the moment when tiny nations such as Sao Tome é Principe (making their comeback in international football after an 8 years hiatus), Mongolia, Philippines (making their world cup qualifiers comeback too after a long absence), Bermuda, Curacao, … are sending their players out on the pitch. But one of them really made history: American Samoa.
American Samoa is a US protectorate in the Pacific Ocean, not to be confused with their neighbours Samoa who are a sovereign nation. Oceania is already considered the weakest of all continents in football (or soccer, as used more frequently there), but the tiny atolls and island nations are truly the weakest nations on earth football has to offer. The national teams of Tonga, American Samoa, the Cook Islands, … would easily be beaten with high scores by a lower league team from Europe. And still, I admire these guys. They are not paid to play, they are pure amateurs playing out of love for the sport and for their country. They realise their chance of progress is 0 and that the likelihood of very huge defeats is high. Still, every game, with renewed enthousiasm, they enter the pitch, purely out of love for the game. That, ladies and gentlement, is the pure football. Far away from the stars with sky-high salaries and the 80000 capacity stadiums, here on these islands, football is still played in its purest form.
Back to American Samoa. Of all nations on earth, this may be the very weakest of them all in football terms. With approx 50000 citizens on a remote archipelago where typical USA sports are more popular than soccer, it is little surprise that American Samoa is joint bottom of the FIFA ranking. They won one game back in 1983 when during the South Pacific Games, Wallis & Futuna were beaten 3-0. Neither of both were FIFA members though at the time. Unlike Wallis & Futuna, American Samoa however decided to take the leap and join FIFA. Since then an endless list of defeats, often with embarrassing scorelines followed.
American Samoa made history a first time when in a World Cup qualifier on 11th April 2001, they lost to Australia … 31-0. The Aussies, who smashed Tonga 24-0 only days before (this says it all about the level of Oceanian football), still hold the world record of biggest win ever in an international game thanks to that scoreline. Archie Thompson also made his way in the record books that day by scoring 13 times against Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper ironically being the only one of that team that lost 31-0 who was in the squad also last month.
The World Cup qualifiers now started again in Oceania and the 4 weakest teams (American Samoa obviously, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands) had to play a round-robin tournament in Samoa to decide which of these 4 could progress to the next stage when the slightly better teams such as Fiji, Vanuatu etc make their entry. American Samoa had lost 30 games in a row prior to this tournament and never won a single game in a FIFA competition. Moreover, they had lost every single FIFA-sanctioned game they ever played… until now.
The day was 23rd November 2011 and American Samoa played Tonga. Much to everybody’s surprise, American Samoa took the lead with a shot from distance from Ramin Ott just before half-time. While, admitted, the Tonga goalie looked terrible in this moment, American Samoa had scored, and for a team losing 30 games in a row spread over 17 years, this already is some occasion to celebrate. But more good was to come in the national "stadium" of Samoa (in fact just a playing field without any stands whatsoever but surrounding by a wood of palm trees … playing in a tropic island in a sunswamped place surrounded by tropical trees, isn’t that much more idyllic than Camp Nou or Old Trafford? I for sure would prefer it anytime instead of a big stadium). With about a quarter left to play, Kaneti Falela lobbed the Tonga goalie to make it 2-0 and now the sense of victory was really beginning to become realistic for the American Samoans. A late Unaloto Faeo goal for Tonga brought the 2-1 but American Samoa held on.
What followed is what football is all about… Players whose country lost 30 in a row and never booked a single point in a FIFA sanctioned game, whose nation lost 31-0 to Australia only 10 years ago, raised their arms in the sky upon the final whistle, fell to the ground in tears of happiness and a mass celebration of the coaches and players followed. American Samoa, the team everyone thought would never play a game without losing, had booked a win. A win in a world cup qualifier. History had been written on this tiny pitch surrounding by tropical palm trees. The decor itself was idyllic, but any football fan should be moved seeing these guys crying tears of joy because of their win. "Never give up" got a new meaning now.
The Dutch national coach of the US Samoans, Rongen (nice job: coaching on a tropical island amidst palm trees and tropical beaches), was clearly as moved as the players on the pitch. "This is going to be part of soccer history, like the 31-0 (defeat) against Australia was part of history," Rongen said. Ott, the scorer of the first goal, declared: "I can’t explain it right now. I’m elated. I’m above everything right now."
Granted, seeing Messi dribble and score the most wonderful goals is beautiful. Granted, seeing a full Wembley with passionate fans during a Cup final is impressive. But the pure football was what happened end November in Samoa. Players who each time full of enthousiasm start the games despite all humiliating defeats from the past, crying out of joy for finally having won a game. Beautiful and nothing but big respect for these people. In the end it wasn’t enough to progress as a 1-0 defeat to neighbours Samoa meant Samoa was the one progressing to the next stage. But this time, American Samoa can leave with the heads up high. They not only won their first ever FIFA sanctioned game, they also drew with Cook Islands a few days later (1-1). The supposedly weakest football nation on earth with nothing but defeats on the tally, left with 4 points and a first historical victory. I can only say this news moved me much more than the average Champions League game will ever do.
A very very big congrats to American Samoa. Be very proud of yourself and enjoy this historical moment. Your spirit of never giving up has finally been rewarded and nobody can take this historical victory away from you anymore!
The 31-0 against Australia 10 years ago: (should this link not work, the YouTube URL is 1wg9ox9F7Vw)
and the historical win vs Tonga (mind the idyllic environment in which this game was played): (should this link not work, the YouTube URL is bft_ChykJGg)