World's worst football team finally tastes success

After 30 straight losses – one by 31 goals to nil – American Samoa get the winning feeling at last

Losing jinxes don't come much worse than this: 30 consecutive defeats, including a 31-0 massacre and a decade of being lampooned as the world's most woeful football nation. But American Samoa has finally had its first international victory, triggering euphoria in Pago Pago, the capital of the tiny South Pacific territory.

For most teams, a 2-1 win over Tonga in a pre-qualifying game for the 2014 World Cup would be little to sound your vuvuzela about, but that did nothing to lessen American Samoa's joy. "This is going to be part of soccer history," said the team's coach, Thomas Rongen.

Most elated of all the players, who sank to their knees in disbelief when the whistle blew on Tuesday, was the goalkeeper, Nicky Salapu, who has spent 10 years trying to live down the ignominy of letting in 31 goals against Australia – still an international record. "I feel like a champ right now," he told the New York Times after the match in Apia, the Samoan capital. "Finally I'm going to put the past behind me."

The victory is set to elevate American Samoa in the FIFA world rankings; no longer will it share bottom place with Andorra, San Marino, Samoa (the US protectorate's independent neighbour) and Montserrat. And the ratio of goals it has scored to those it has conceded since venturing on to the international stage in 1994 has improved, ever so slightly, from its previous tally of 12 to 229.

Among the players savouring the unaccustomed taste of success was Johnny Saelua, a man who considers himself a woman, or rather a fa'fafine – a "third sex" common in Polynesia. Rongen said: "I've really got a female starting at centre back. Can you imagine that in England or Spain?"

The Dutch-born coach took over the team just three weeks ago, after being fired by the United States under-20s. At the time, he could not point to American Samoa on the map. "When I got here, I had never seen a lower standard of international football," hesaid. Lack of confidence, he added, was the biggest problem, particularly for Salapu.

"This guy's got major demons going on. He's totally driven by the 31-0 score and erasing it for himself and his family," Rongen explained. "When he mentions American Samoa, people say, 'You're the guy that gave up 31 goals.' There are incredible scars."

With American Samoa facing two more matches in the Oceania Group this week, against the Cook Islands and Samoa, Rongen dared to dream that more wins might follow. He told his team he wanted them to finish top of the four-nation group. "Maybe we have a chance to do something special here beyond this one game, but let's enjoy this one right now," he said.

14-230

The tally of goals scored against goals conceded by American Samoa since 1994.

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