Last Saturday was not a day to remember for the Greenock Morton fans. The Scottish Championship side was on the wrong side of 10-2 defeat at the hands of Hamilton, making it one of the worst defeats in Scottish history. As the dejected Morton players left the pitch, an all too familiar feeling crept over their bodies – one of shame and embarrassment. In football there is no worse feeling than losing, with the exception of losing heavily. However some smaller international teams have started to become accustom to losing and losing badly. Europe’s proverbial whipping boys San Marino know what it’s like all too well having suffered countless double digit defeats, the most recent being in the European Championship qualifying stages against Holland where they were convincingly thrashed 11-0, with Robin Van Persie scoring four goals. Whilst this was a heavy defeat, the world record for the largest victory belongs to Australia who in 2001 hammered American Samoa 31-0, with Archie Thompson bagging a international record 13 goals. For American Samoa, the defeat has left a long lasting scar that is only now starting to heal thanks in part to an inspirational Dutch coach and some much needed self belief.
Being classified as the worst team in the world for 10 consecutive years in the official FIFA rankings would be enough to convince most players to give up the game they loved and try something else. But in 2011, when the ruling body in the tiny South Pacific island of American Samoa decided it was time for a change and hired Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, a new hope rose to inspire the players to keep trying. Rongen faced quite possibly the hardest job in football, to turn a losing team into winners. In the soon to be released documentary, Next Goal wins, directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison track the journey that Rongen went on and how he brought pride and respect back to this tiny footballing nation. Not an easy task given that since their record breaking defeat, American Samoa hadn’t won a single game in 12 appearances and had let in 87 goals, scoring only twice in the process. But Rongen saw something in the players he inherited, a sense of national pride and a desire to write history but halting their slump and climbing back up the FIFA rankings. His first job was to work with goalkeeper Nicky Salapu and restore his confidence. The 33 year old goalkeeper is the only remaining member of the team that was put to the sword by Australia over ten years ago and was in goal for the epic game. A constant fixture in the team, Salapu has picked the ball out of his net too many times over the past ten years and was lacking self belief. So Rongen wiped the slate clean with a different philosophy than outgoing coach Tony Langkilde who once famously said “”Football is a game of three possibilities: win, tie and loss. For us it is a game of only one possibility: loss”. Rongen didn’t believe in this and insisted that in football anything is possible. His optimism rubbed off and American Samoa started to play more like a unit, more organized and full of confidence. Rongen also wasn’t afraid to go against the curve by making Jaiyah Saelua a major part of his team. Jaiyah is the first transgender player to compete in a men’s FIFA World Cup qualifier. Born as Johnny, Jaiyah is biologically male but embodying both masculine and feminine gender traits. Accepted by her teammates almost instantaneously, it is an example of how football can look past differences and progress, a lesson that the rest of the world can learn from. On the pitch, Saelua and her teammates started to make their own progress, under the careful watch of Rongen and his coaching staff.
The learning curve was steep but in the end American Samoa recorded a famous 2-1 victory over Tonga in the first round of the OFC qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The win was followed days later by a 1-1 draw with the Cook Islands and helped catapult America Samoa up the rankings into their current position of 197 in the world, above the likes of Andorra and San Marino. Rongen has now left his job as head coach, having accepted a job in Toronto as Academy Director at TFC but his legacy lives on in American Samoa who are forever thankful for the Dutchman for helping restore pride back into their national team.