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Half Volley eleven of the year: Goalkeeper December 29, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in American Samoa soccer, International soccer, The World Cup.
Tags: , , , , , ,

For finally getting the joy he deserved after a decade of the kind of psychological trauma most footballers will never know, for defeating his demons, Nicky Salapu is our goalkeeper of the year.

Photo credit: Next Goal Wins

Ten years ago, Nicky Salapu suffered perhaps the biggest disgrace ever handed out on a soccer field. He was in goal for American Samoa as Australia thrashed the Pacific Island nation dishing out the most lopsided defeat in the history of international soccer, 31-0 during the qualifying tournament for the 2002 World Cup.

That defeat certainly wasn’t Salapu’s fault. A passport dispute meant that American Samoa was forced to field its youth team, since Salapu was the only member of the seniors with proper documentation. At just 21, the keeper was thrust into the role of captain. He played behind a suicidal 3-3-4 formation and pulled off nearly a dozen saves, some of them spectacular, to keep the score down, relatively speaking.

But the game made international headlines and, fairly or not, Salapu’s name became synonymous with it. Caption writers lampooned him, despite his monumental performance.

It wrecked Salapu psychologically. It was a turning point in his life.

“This guy’s got major demons going on,” American Samoa coach Thomas Rongen told the BBC this year. “Totally driven by the 31-nothing, erasing this for himself, for his family. Every time you talk to him that back comes up, to a point where he’s so preoccupied and almost crazed about that. He gets confronted in Seattle (where Salapu now lives), when he talks about American Samoa, and he gets, ‘Oh, are you the guy that gave up 31 goals?’ There’s some incredible scars.”

News outlets reported that the keeper was in tears after the match. Salapu told the Guardian’s Rob Bagchi that he drank to ease the pain for a while. He scored goals ritually against an unmanned Australia team in a PlayStation video game to purge the ill-feeling.

“My teammates were celebrating,” he told the BBC. “I was like, this is the worst thing ever.”

A lesser man would have let the result destroy him. The disgrace was so intense that Salapu intimated to the BBC that his son had even been teased about the result against Australia. Salapu had a stint in Austrian soccer, but he’s an amateur. He has a day job at a Seattle supermarket.

Travelling to the South Pacific to play must be an inconvenience, for a man trying to hold down a job and raise a family. And Salapu’s only reward for a decade of dedication and sacrifice to the team was more pain. The team lost every game it played without scoring once. Salapu conceded more than 200 goals. By November of this year, American Samoa was the bottom-ranked team in the world.

Salapu was determined to keep fighting. This year he finally purged his ghosts. Dutch coach Rongen came in for American Samoa, changed the team’s mentality, and brought in new training methods. In this year’s World Cup qualifiers, the American Samoa team beat Tonga 2-1. It was the first goal and win ever for the team in an official game.

Ten years after the Australian disgrace, American Samoa’s soccer team made worldwide headlines, this time for the right reasons. The same media outlets that had gotten cheap laughs at Salapu’s expense in 2001 were cheering for his team in 2011. Indeed, for a week, the whole world was behind American Samoa.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The team needed a win from its final game in the qualifying tournament against its neighbor Samoa to advance it to the next round and keep its hopes of making the 2014 World Cup alive. It held out for 90 minutes, with Salapu putting in an octopus-like performance to keep the team in the game against a Samoa team that dominated the game, before finally conceding in stoppage time. American Samoa was eliminated.

After the whistle, Rongen’s players cried openly. But unlike Salapu’s tears ten years before, these were not tears of utter helplessness. There was disappointment, but between sobs the players also spoke of pride. Nobody was happier than Salapu.

“I feel like I’m just released from prison,” he told the BBC after the Tonga game.


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