Samoa ends American Samoa’s dream run

A last-minute goal put Samoa into the next stage of Oceania’s

World Cup qualifying, beating American Samoa 1-0 on Sunday to end

the tiny Pacific nation’s captivating run.

American Samoa, 204th and last in FIFA rankings, captured world

attention when it beat Tonga in its opening match at the

four-nation, round-robin tournament, notching its first-ever

international win.

Another win Sunday would have seen it advance to round two of

qualifying, and the defense, based around center back Johnny Saelua

– thought to be the world’s first transgender international – held

strong until the 90th minute when Silao Malo scored on a

counterattack.

Samoa now progresses to the next stage in Oceania qualifying,

where it will be in a round-robin group pitted against New

Caledonia, Tahiti and Vanuatu. The other second-round group

involves 2010 World Cup qualifier New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New

Guinea and the Solomon Islands, with the top two from each group to

advance.

The second round will be played in Fiji next June and doubles as

the 2012 Oceania Nations Cup.

Saturday’s match in Apia was played on a pitch sodden by recent

rain. Samoa dominated the first half but couldn’t break the defense

of its smaller Pacific neighbor. Its appeal for a penalty in the

28th minute, when it claimed American Samoa’s Tala Luvu had handled

the ball in the penalty box, was denied by New Zealand referee

Peter O’Leary.

American Samoa goalkeeper Nicky Salapu pulled off a series of

outstanding saves, including two in succession to deny Malo in the

44th and 45th minutes.

Salapu fended off another shot from Malo in the 59th minute and

a tricky, angled shot from Desmond Fa’aiuaso a minute later. Shaun

Easthope and Lionel Taylor also had dangerous shots on goal in the

second half but Salapu kept Samoa scoreless until the 90th

minute.

American Samoa, which needed a win to overtake Samoa for top

spot in the standings, had its best chance in the 81st minute when

Diamond Ott went one-on-one with Samoa goalkeeper Masi Toetu but

his shot hit the post. Ott was also denied by Toetu in the 90th

minute and Malo scored from the subsequent counterattack.

Despite the defeat, American Samoa were still the stars of the

tournament, playing well above their world ranking. Former Ajax

Amsterdam player and longtime MLS coach Thomas Rongen took charge

of American Samoa only weeks before the tournament and shaped them

into a well-organized and confident squad.

Saelua drew particular world attention. The defender, who was

making his World Cup debut after playing for American Samoa at

South Pacific Games in 2007 and this year, is a fa’afafine – a

biological male raised as a woman, forming effectively a third

gender in Polynesian culture.

American Samoa has only around 1,000 registered football

players. The sport lags in popularity behind sports such as

basketball and American football in the U.S. protectorate but is

played in both elementary and high schools.

In Saturday’s other game, Tonga beat Cook Islands 2-1.