APIA, 23 Nov 2011: — American Samoa had played 30 men’s soccer matches since starting international play in 1994. It had lost all 30, by a combined score of 229-12, and was tied for last in the FIFA world rankings.
On Tuesday, the tiny, unincorporated island territory in the South Pacific finally broke through, defeating Tonga, 2-1, in a prequalifying match for the 2014 World Cup.
“I don’t just want to win one match,” American Samoa’s coach, Thomas Rongen, shouted to his players as they celebrated on the field. He told them he wanted to go on to finish atop their four-team prequalifying group, a previously outlandish notion for a team that once lost, 31-0, to Australia.
Rongen, a native of the Netherlands, played professionally in the United States in the North American Soccer League and coached in Major League Soccer. He won the M.L.S. Cup with D.C. United in 1999. He lost his job as coach of the United States under-20 team earlier this year and took over in American Samoa.
“When I got here, I had never seen a lower standard of international football,” Rongen said this week.
American Samoa had spent nearly two decades losing — and losing badly — so the hardest part for Rongen was dealing with the team’s shattered confidence. No one had been hit harder by the defeats than Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper. Salapu had played 11 of American Samoa’s 12 World Cup qualifying matches.
“This guy’s got major demons going on,” Rongen said. “He’s totally driven by the 31-0 score and erasing it for himself and his family. When he mentions American Samoa, people say, ‘You’re the guy that gave up 31 goals.’ There are incredible scars.”
After the game Tuesday, Salapu said: “I feel like a champ right now. Finally I’m going to put the past behind me.”
The American Samoa defense was bolstered by Johnny Saelua, who is believed to be the first transgender athlete to compete in a World Cup qualifying match. Saelua is part of the fa’afafine, biological males who identify as a third sex that is widely accepted in Polynesian culture.
“The team accept me and we have that mutual respect,” Saelua said. “Which is great. It’s all part of the culture.”
Rongen said: “I’ve really got a female starting at center back. Can you imagine that in England or Spain?”
American Samoa may never compete at a level with England or Spain. For now, it merely hopes to advance to the next round of World Cup qualifying. Next up: the Cook Islands on Thursday and Samoa on Saturday.