I don’t know how I missed this (damn work!) but the American Samoa national football team finally won its first match. I mean its first match ever–at least in terms of matches sanctioned by FIFA. This is after almost two decades and over 30 attempts. In fact, I don’t think they ever even drew a match before.
I love rooting for the football minnows, and they don’t get smaller than American Samoa, whom the BBC so delicately referred as the world’s worst team. (Rankings-wise this is accurate, but it’s still mean.) Finally the team beat Tonga 2-1. Match reports say that the team celebrated as though they had won the World Cup, which is understandable given the team’s history of futility. Yesterday they drew the Cook Islands 1-1, so thus far in this World Cup qualification campaign they are undefeated.
The last time American Samoa was in the news was in 2001 for the infamous 31-0 loss to Australia’s second string team. It is to date the worst drubbing in international football history (breaking the previous record of 22-0 which Australia had set against Tonga two days prior). American Samoa instantly because the butt of all jokes, which is actually rather unfair because it ignores the full story of the match. The American Samoa team was ridiculously understrength because of passport issues and high school exams, and for a territory which (a) is tiny and (b) cares far less for football that for American football, basketball, and baseball, that was a fatal death knell. A few of the fielded players were as young as 15, and some had never played a 90 minute match before. Truth be told, 31-0 probably flattered the American Samoan team almost as much as it did the Australians.
The other part of the story is that Australia deliberately ran up the score, and not because the Socceroos were jealous of how many points the Wallabies score in a typical rugby union match. At the time Australia were in the OFC, which is by far the weakest conference in FIFA. Not surprisingly, Australia had only appeared once at the World Cup–in 1974. Despite the 31-0, Australia still missed out on the World Cup (Uruguay beat them over two legs in a playoff). Australia knew that staying in the OFC would only hinder its development, and like with American Samoa, football was competing for attention and resources with far more popular sports. Changes were made for the next cycle, but finally Australia left the OFC for the AFC, a conference far more suited to a developing football nation with legitimate World Cup qualification hopes. This was only fair.
Unfairly, American Samoa became a worldwide laughingstock, forever associated with the 31-0. There is a very moving essay by the writer Ben Rice in the book The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup in which that match play. Following the loss, the-then American Samoa coach Tony Langkilde said of the match and his team:
It is a learning curve. We are a member of FIFA and we have a right to play. We are very happy to be here and to build from here. I do not think we are downhearted. The only way is forward.
As soon as I read that quote, I developed a deep affection for American Samoa. I hoped that one day the world would see them move forward. Finally it has.