Goal islands

Oceania's masterplan to attract the attention of the football world paid off spectacularly as an avalanche of goals in the World Cup qualifiers set new records. Matthew Hall  counted them all in

Nicky Salapu picked the ball from his net 57 times during his country’s four World Cup qualifiers over Easter, but then he is the goalkeeper for American Sam­oa, officially the worst national team in the world.

Oceania Group One was a tournament of inglorious world records. Australian striker Archie Thompson scored 13 of the record 31 goals the Socceroos racked up against American Samoa, which itself broke their own record for a tournament match set one game earlier with a 22-0 defeat of Tonga. Australia topped their group with a goal difference of plus-66. The scores made headlines around the world, Thompson became an international star for 24 hours, and coaches, officials, and the media ridiculed Oceania’s credibility with a gusto not seen since Charlie Dempsey handed Germany the 2006 World Cup.

Two nights after shot after shot whistled past Salapu’s ears, the goalkeeper sat down for a glimpse of European football (Samoan television is dominated by imported US sports) and watched Leeds beat Liverpool on Australian cable TV in his motel room. “I like Michael Owen,” he said, pointing to the small screen and bearing no grudges against strikers. The Premiership is a million miles from the rocky grounds and village teams the internationals of American Samoa are familiar with. The 20-year-old keeper recognised Harry Kewell, saying it was funny an outfield player would sometimes wear woollen gloves, just like a goalkeeper.

He stopped laughing when it was pointed out Kewell is Australian and, club-v-country wran­gles aside, could have lined up against Salapu a few days earlier. “I think it’s OK for Kewell to play against Liverpool rather than us, then,” offered team-mate Avele Mauga with a smile. “Australia were already so fast the other night it seemed they were riding motorbikes.”

Knee-jerk reactions to results during these group games suggested Oceania, and its World Cup qualifying process, are little more than a farce. Some critics went so far as to say the confederation should be shut down and merged with Asia. Dick Advocaat and Gordon Strachan rampaged about players called into Australia’s squad: why should these players be drag­ged across the other side of the world for “Mickey Mouse” qualifiers? The world game? The world stops at the end of Highfield Road, apparently.

The eternal (and increasingly tedious) club-v-country debate took another twist during Australia’s preparation for these matches. Soccer Australia, hoping to avoid fixture congestion in June, made a controversial deal with FIFA to the effect that no Europe-based players would be called up against the will of their clubs. The result: Mark Viduka, Kewell, Paul Okon, Mark Schwarzer and Danny Tiatto stayed in Britain, while Craig Moore and Tony Vidmar of Rangers, John Aloisi of Coventry, Kevin Muscat of Wolves and West Ham’s Hayden Foxe caught the plane. In what could prove an interesting precedent, the clubs effectively called the selection shots. Ad­vocaat and Strachan would have saved hot air had they paid attention to the agreement, no matter how ad hoc.

Not that the Australians could be blamed for sur­rendering the dog end of a British winter for an Easter vacation. The World Cup games were played at Coffs Harbour, a coastal holiday town seven hours’ drive north of Sydney (total taxis: 17). Australia’s HQ was a secluded five-star resort with manicured lawns, its own golf course and room rates peaking at US$1,500. American Samoa were three to a room at a $100-a-night highway motel. There were other differences. American Samoa’s players received $100 for the entire tournament. The Australians picked up $300 a day with each squad member scoring $4,000 for each win.

The ripples from Europe’s passport scandals spread to the Pacific, with FIFA’s newest members feeling the full brunt of officialdom. Two whole teams of players were ruled out of selection as most foot­ballers from the island nation hold Samoan, not US, passports (American Samoa is a US dependency). Fifteen-year-olds received a World Cup call-up, not because they were Pacific wonderkids, but to make up the numbers.

Fiji’s participation was also touch-and-go. The Australian government briefly lifted sporting sanc­tions in place since last year’s coup and Fiji responded by battling to a creditable 2-0 loss against their hosts. Fiji’s players were theoretically playing for a $5,000 bonus, although to get it they not only had to beat Australia but actually qualify for the 2002 finals. Inspiration at training sessions was helped by a barrel of kava, a traditional blow-your-mind anaesthetic drink, available for players and officials on the sidelines.

Coach Billy Singh warmed up the tournament with a war of words with Frank Farina after the Australia coach warned his players to beware of Fiji tactics that might include “biting and scratching”. In the event, Singh didn’t employ such a rough house but did restore pride to the island nations in the tournament’s “crunch” game. Had Fiji striker Josaia Sauturaga, a junior with Sydney club Marconi, not fluffed an open goal at 1-0 right on half-time, the result might even have been different. “We proved everyone wrong,” said Fiji’s Australian-based striker Esala Masi after the match. “We can keep our cool. We can play.”

Oceania could be a benchmark for the development of football as a true world sport. In 20 years’ time, it’s just possible Australia won’t be the only Oceania side to have beaten Scotland 2-0 at Hampden Park. American Samoa may be last on FIFA’s rankings, and probably won’t be the team to humble a European side, but it’s the only country in the world where football is a part of the official national education program. American Samoa joined FIFA in 1998 and the national association has since successfully campaigned to have the sport take a compulsory place, for boys and girls, alongside maths and history in schools.

Watching Leeds play Liverpool, Nicky Salapu whis­tled when he heard of the riches available to Prem­iership players. For his team, and perhaps much of Oceania, money is attractive but not what football is necessarily about. “We had to admire American Sa­moa,” said one Australian defender. “They knew they were going to be pumped but they still lined up with two guys up front. They were going to have a go.”

American Samoa’s only shot that night, a lame trickle from just over the halfway line, received the biggest cheer of the game. But they still stuck with twin strikers until the final whistle. Salapu and several team -mates missed a string of matches for his club back home. There was no struggle to get away. “They were happy because we’re away representing our country,” he explained. Gordon Strachan and Dick Advocaat need not attempt to understand just what that means.

Critics of the current qualifying system would like to see giant v minnow mismatches abandoned and smaller nations form an Ocea­nia second division. Players and of­ficials from the condemned countries ap­pear un­ited: they don’t want it. American Sam­oans are already looking forward to their next meeting with Australia. 25-0? 20-0? 15-0? It wouldn’t matter, according to the worst team in the world. It’s the World Cup and it’s all about progress.

From WSC 172 June 2001. What was happening this month