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The 2014 World Cup is quickly approaching, but the qualifying process began two years ago. And one of the 171 teams eliminated was American Samoa — a most unlikely contender.
Yet for the tiny U.S. territory in the South Pacific, the first-round qualifier was momentous.
In nearly two decades, the team had zero wins and 30 losses and gave up 229 goals. Most notably, it suffered a 31-0 defeat by Australia in 2001 that remains the largest losing margin on record for a senior national team.
But in three matches in the Oceania region’s first-round qualifying tournament, which took place in November 2011 for this year’s World Cup, American Samoa claimed the first victory in team history, tied a game after leading (only because of an own goal in the second half) and narrowly lost the decisive third meeting in the 89th minute.
The team also healed personal scars along the way.
Nicky Salapu, the losing goalie in that 31-0 rout, redeemed his reputation; Thomas Rongen, the atheist coach who tried to turn the team around, found spiritual solace after his daughter’s death; and defender Jaiyah Saelua, who had ridden the bench for years, turned into one of the team’s most valuable players — eventually earning praise from FIFA president Sepp Blatter for being the first transgender person to compete at the World Cup level.
The team’s odyssey is chronicled in the riveting documentary “Next Goal Wins,” which made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan on April 19. “Next Goal Wins” opened in select U.S. cities Friday and rolls out in more locations over the next several weeks.
Initially, when two British directors showed up on the island with cameras, “I was very reluctant,” said volunteer coach Larry Mana’o. “I thought it was going to be a mockumentary. But they won me over. There’s more to this story than soccer.”
The national team temporarily disbanded after its ouster from the tournament, so the film’s premiere also served as a mini-reunion and an opportunity to learn more about the players and their endeavors since the team’s last international game.
‘The rock of our team’
On the red carpet, Jaiyah “Johnny” Saelua was impossible to miss, in a white stretch minidress and tan pumps that elevated the 6-foot-2 athlete high above the crowd. In Samoan culture, biological males who identify as women are called fa’afafine, and they are both accepted and expected to fulfill honorable roles in society. The literal translation is “the way of the woman,” or womanly. Saelua is fa’afafine, as is her younger brother.
In the community, Saelua said, fa’afafine are very reliable and are often asked to organize events “because people know for sure they will get the job done.” Since fa’afafine don’t often marry, they usually take care of their elderly parents.
On the team, Saelua would take the initiative to make sure the uniforms were in order.
“We have someone who takes care of that,” she said, “but I double check. And attitude-wise, I make sure there’s no tension between players.”
On the field, she said, “it’s my responsibility to put all that aside, be an equal and play my heart out for them, for my family and for my country.”
Rongen, the salty Dutch-born coach who answered the nation’s last-minute plea for help and had three weeks to prepare the squad for the World Cup qualifier, acknowledged Saelua’s significant contribution.
“Jaiyah became the rock of our team,” he said. “She clearly demonstrated every day that she belonged there, that she was a starter. She was physically strong, mentally strong, loved to compete. She played with a broken toe. She played with a swollen knee. She played every minute of the game for us. And she played the way she practiced — with heart, intensity, great passion. She’s an unbelievable teammate, true leader, reliable, durable. She also had an assist on our first goal in the Tonga game and saved two late goals for us to get the win.”
After the tournament, Saelua returned to the University of Hawaii at Hilo to complete her major in performing arts with a concentration in dance — but was told she couldn’t start the spring semester of 2012.
“It was my fault,” she said, noting that she had forgotten to notify the school that she was taking a leave to compete for the national soccer team. So she worked as a security guard to repay a percentage of her student loans with hopes of regaining eligibility for financial aid.
“Eventually I’m going to get it done,” Saelua said of her college education. “It’s very important to have the degree.”
She currently lives on Oahu with one of her three older sisters and independently trains for soccer.
After 2015, Saelua plans to retire from the national team to focus on her physical transition.
She has already undergone laser treatments and hormone treatment but lowered her dosage for soccer, she said, “because I decided to play one more season and don’t want to be too feminine on the field. I still want to be able to play tough and hard.”
FIFA does have gender eligibility criteria, but Saelua, 25, said she has not had to undergo any testing.
The premiere marked Saelua’s first trip to New York City, and she was especially happy to see Nicky Salapu, since he was her first coach, in middle school.
The ultimate comeback
Salapu grew up on Samoa, about 100 miles west of American Samoa, and taught himself to play soccer at age 10 on a rugby field, competing barefoot with friends and using an airless ball with no covering.
When the village team was looking for a goalie, Salapu stepped into the net wearing rugby shoes with big holes, no shin guards and no gloves.
By 2001, the national select team was full of talent, but strict enforcement of a passport rule barred nonresidents from playing in World Cup qualifying, so junior high and high school players filled the last-minute vacancies — which partially explains the 31-0 drubbing.
“It was crazy,” Salapu said, “I was the only experienced player, and I was underneath the post. I was trying the best I can to slow down the score. I knew that was going to happen — but I never want to let my country down.”
Salapu was so haunted by that notorious loss that every day at home — for three years — he staged rematches on his PlayStation, and deliberately let American Samoa win by about 50 goals each time. When he upgraded to an Xbox in 2008, the habit continued.
When coach Rongen took charge of the team in the fall of 2011, Salapu had just retired.
Bringing back Salapu “was huge,” the coach said. “It was a big gamble. I had no idea when I called him how driven he would be, how motivated he was. I had one goalie … who could have probably done an adequate job for us, but [Nicky] was the only player from the 31[-goal] loss. Everyone knew of him. He became a true inspiration — almost like we owe it to Nicky to work hard and do something special.”
Ultimately, the lone victory over Tonga made Salapu a free man, emotionally. And part of the credit goes to his former pupil Saelua.
In the final minute against Tonga, Salapu was out of the goal when Tonga took a shot that could have tied the game at 2.
“All of a sudden, I was [thinking], ‘Where is the ball? Oh, my God, I got beat,’” he said. “When I looked back, the ball was already coming back [down the field], and I saw Jaiyah standing there.”
She made the save.
“For her to help me in that moment paid off big time,” he said.
Salapu, 33, now lives in Seattle, plays soccer six times a week in three leagues and works climbing cellphone towers to fix signals for AT&T. He said that he will play soccer for the rest of his life but that he’s done with national competition.
He still relives the Australia match on his Xbox, though, except now he lets his 7-year-old son, Dylan, control the remote as America Samoa while Dad (as Australia) allows him to score relentlessly.
Veteran coach learns anew
Like Salapu, Thomas Rongen also lives on the mainland now, in eastern Florida, where he is taking his first real hiatus after 14 years playing professionally in the U.S., nine years coaching in Major League Soccer and several more guiding the U.S. under-20 team.
When the 57-year-old saw the film for the first time (at a private screening in Los Angeles three weeks before the premiere), he said, “I didn’t know what to expect. I had some trepidation. They shot 400 hours of footage. But they translated it so well to the screen. It’s real. It was so healthy.”
As for the challenge of coaching the lowest-ranking team in the FIFA world standings, Rongen said, “Clearly, I knew that I had some work ahead of me. I threw my conventional books out of the window and just rolled with it. I made them fitter, more organized, more dedicated. I also knew emotionally I could make great strides.
“I looked into their eyes before the first game against Tonga, and they believed. This was a team that lost in double digits in almost every game they played. So for me to look in their eyes the day of and have everybody nodding because they really, firmly thought they could get a result against Tonga was pretty special.”
For Rongen, it was an experience he’s eager to recapture or build on.
“I would love to finish the job with American Samoa,” he said in New York. “I’m currently looking to see if I can get involved with a smaller nation as a head coach because it was an incredible journey and it really left me wanting more. It was so rewarding.”