HomeFootballThe Extraordinary Story of American Samoa Goalkeeper Nicky Salapu: From the Heaviest...

The Extraordinary Story of American Samoa Goalkeeper Nicky Salapu: From the Heaviest Loss in Football History to Redemption


The Heaviest Loss in International Football History: Nicky Salapu’s Story

On 11 April 2001, American Samoa goalkeeper Nicky Salapu experienced what could be described as the worst day of his career. In a World Cup qualifier against Australia, Salapu’s team suffered a crushing defeat, losing 31-0. This remains the heaviest loss in international football history. In a recent interview for the Sporting Witness podcast on BBC Sounds, Salapu shared his memories of that fateful match and the impact it had on his life.

A David vs. Goliath Battle:
American Samoa, with a population of only 58,000 at the time, was up against Australia, a football powerhouse with a population of 19 million. The disparity in resources and experience was evident. Adding to the challenge, Fifa had stipulated that only players with an American passport could represent American Samoa in the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup. This limitation left Salapu as the only eligible player out of a squad of 20.

Assembling a Team of Novices:
With only two weeks to prepare, Salapu and his teammates faced a daunting task of finding enough players to form a team. Desperate to fill the roster, they ended up selecting high school kids, including three 15-year-olds. Salapu, at 20 years old, was considered a veteran within the team.

A Series of Losses:
Unsurprisingly, the team of novices struggled in their qualifying campaign. They suffered a 13-0 loss to Fiji and an 8-0 loss to Samoa before facing Tonga, where they managed to limit the defeat to just 5-0. Despite the continuous losses, this narrow defeat seemed like a relative success for American Samoa.

Australia’s Dominance:
In contrast, Australia came into the match against American Samoa after a resounding 22-0 victory over Tonga. The Socceroos were determined to prove their worth and secure their place in the World Cup. Their relentless attack started early, with Con Boutsianis scoring the first goal after only eight minutes. Archie Thompson quickly followed suit, scoring three minutes later. By the 27th minute, Thompson had completed a hat-trick. The onslaught continued, with Thompson ending the match with 13 goals, while David Zdrilic scored eight and Boutsianis netted a hat-trick.

Salapu’s Emotional Struggle:
Throughout the match, Salapu faced an emotional struggle. He had to hide his tears from his teammates, bottling up his emotions until the game was over. As the goals kept pouring in, Salapu urged his teammates to focus on moving forward rather than dwelling on the scoreline. The team’s only attack of the match came in the 86th minute when they forced Australia goalkeeper Michael Petkovic to make a save.

Unsporting Approach or Determined Domination?:
Salapu questioned Australia’s approach during the match, wondering how many goals were necessary to prove their dominance. He believed that once they had reached 20 goals, they should have focused on keeping possession instead of continuously attacking. In his opinion, this would have been a more sporting approach.

Redemption and a New Beginning:
For years, Salapu carried the weight of that humiliating defeat. American Samoa faced 38 consecutive defeats and held a goal difference of minus 217. However, in 2011, the team appointed Dutchman Thomas Rongen as their manager, bringing about significant changes. Under Rongen’s guidance and a shift in formation to 4-2-3-1, American Samoa finally secured their first Fifa-recognized victory against Tonga in a World Cup qualifier for the 2014 tournament. Salapu, who had come out of retirement to join the team, experienced a moment of redemption and shed tears of joy.

Nicky Salapu’s story is one of resilience and determination. From the depths of a historic defeat to the heights of redemption, he exemplifies the spirit of never giving up. The American Samoa team’s journey, chronicled in the upcoming film Next Goal Wins, serves as a reminder that even in the face of overwhelming odds, victory is possible. Salapu’s continued involvement in football, along with his son Dylan’s aspirations to play for the national team, showcases the enduring legacy of their remarkable story.

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