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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.
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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.


News Break: Australia really…really stinks. June 15, 2010

Posted by michaeltomlinson in World Cup 2010.
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An astute mathematical point was made about every 7 minutes during ESPN’s pre-game coverage of Brazil vs North Korea. The token Americans and former players fiddling around the studio noticed that Brazil, the highest ranked team in the world was to meet North Korea, the lowest seeded qualifier at 105. Unlike my my friend Alex my knowledge of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea is slim like most of the world. One thing that can be said is that they are six kangaroos and one 3 foot tyrant better than the shit storm that is Australia.

Germany is certainly not Brazil, on any level. Yet if you tuned in the team deemed a world cup away from greatness toyed with the Australians. Time after time the Germans sent through balls whizzing past the hopeless high line of the Ausie back four. When it was said and done the youngsters from Germany completed over 90 percent of their passes and made it look easy. I’m not attempting to take anything away from a German side who bagged 4, but a group of 30 something defenders playing the offside trap against Thomas Müller and Lukas Podolski running down the wings seemed to trying adamantly to commit tactical suicide.

It isn’t just that I believe Australia’s coaching or positioning is terrible (ie: Tim Cahill, their one midfield play maker starting ALONE at striker.) They too are just less talented and have a skill on the ball that is envied by few. The only thing this really says is that those 85 places that separate Australia and North Korea in the Fifa ratings is that it is about as useful as college football pre season rankings and probably just as absurdly biased.