Interview with Nicky Salapu (Next Goal Wins)

Nicky Salapu holds an unenviable record. He conceded more goals than any other goalie in international football history. Back in 2001 his American Samoa side lost 31-0 to Australia in a World Cup qualifier.

He stuck with the national team though as they looked to improve. Ahead of the DVD release of Next Goal Wins this week, a documentary telling the story of the American Samoan national team, Nicky took time out to chat to us.

ngw 2Steve Norman: What was your initial reaction when you found out that people from the UK wanted to make a documentary about the American Samoan national football team?

Nicky Salapu: I felt blessed and shocked at the same time. I kind of felt ‘why us?’ Why have these guys come over to film us? I was shocked when I went to New Caledonia for the South Pacific Games and I saw these guys, I thought ‘are we in trouble?’ It’s a blessing and I thank them for making American Samoa more known around the world and making this film.

SN: It is an interesting story, especially with American Samoa being, at the time, bottom of FIFA’s world rankings and on the end of the heaviest ever defeat in international football to Australia. You played in that game, how did you feel going into that game? How did you approach that match and how did you feel playing against the best team in your region?

NS: I knew it was going to happen. Back then most of the good players didn’t have a passport and FIFA have this rule that says if you don’t have a passport, you can’t play. I was the only experienced player back then because I was playing for the national team. I thought ‘I don’t know how we’re going to face these guys’, especially guys like Mark Viduka, for God’s sake, who played for Leeds United and Mark Schwarzer, you know. How am I meant to face these people. The only reason I’m playing is to make sure my team don’t get beat 50-0. But I knew what was going to happen, I knew the score would be high. I can’t go back and change those things. Whatever happens, happens. It’s embarrassing. It’s a shame.

SN: How did you deal with things after the game, after losing by that scoreline? It seems, from the documentary, that the result affected you a lot.

NS: Yeah, I carried that around with me for a long time, for 13 years. It’s something that I never forget. After the game we walked into the locker room, I bowed down my head and I cried a little bit. I felt very embarrassed and like I don’t want to play soccer anymore. But I also felt that I am a soccer player and I’m not the kind of guy to just give up on it. I felt like I wanted to put my team and my country in a different perspective and get them out of the embarrassment.

SN: Thomas Rongen had experience of playing at Ajax and in the USA with the likes of George Best and Johan Cruyff and had coached the USA youth sides, what did he bring to the American Samoa set up?

NS: The experience and knowledge we never had before. The professionalism we never had before. He brought and installed a commitment that some of the kids don’t have. He said that if you don’t commit yourself fully to the team, we will cut you off, you know. This made a lot of people think ‘oh, this guy is serious’. Thomas was more professional and had a lot of passion for soccer. We have to thank him for bringing his experience and the way he motivated a lot of the kids and make them want to keep playing. His knowledge, experience and professionalism helped us a lot.

SN: At the time Thomas came in as coach, you were living in America. How did he convince you to return to the national team?

NS: [Laughs] good question. He asked me if I wanted to remove the embarrassment of that game, the 31-0 to Australia. He said this was a good moment, that he was a professional coach, that we had good players and some from here in the States [Rongen called up two players based in the USA with American Samoan heritage]. He kept telling me all these things. I was working hard for my family, they really needed me. I didn’t feel like going. When he told me all these things – and telling me he wanted to put the embarrassment of the 31-0 to the side and become winners – he said that this was the best squad with the best players and the best coach. I was like, ‘ok, this will be the best moment to go back and come out of the embarrassment.’ I’m glad he called me and thankful to him for letting me come back to play.

SN: Under Thomas, the team achieved its first ever victory, against Tonga, how did that feel? Especially considering your journey with the team from the loss to Australia to the first ever win.

NS: Oh, it felt incredible. Amazing. I thought I was dreaming. Is this happening? Did we win a game? At the time I felt like we were never going to win but I believed in my team, and the management and the support from our country that came over to support us. I believed we had something and that we would accomplish something. It felt exciting. It was the best thing that ever happened to me in football.  I even forgot that the 31-0 ever existed. It was a joyful moment. I have the movie at home. I watched it last night with my son and my wife and every time I see that part where we won the game I still cry no matter what. I still cry. It means a lot to me and I cannot thank enough Thomas, the coaches and my team-mates for helping that happen.ngw

SN: One of the most uplifting and engaging things about the film was the sense of togetherness between the squad and players and inclusion of the people who may not have come from American Samoa but were of American Samoan descent, or and the people from different backgrounds on the island. Did this help the team?

NS: It helped us a lot. With the culture and religion of the island it makes us come together as a team as we have a respectful way of living. It makes us respect other players and our management. We always show respect everywhere we go. Down in the islands it’s like almost every family is related and that is why we call each other brothers and sisters because we are close and it helps us a lot. Being spiritual was the best thing for our team. Lots of people say that it has nothing to do with God but if you believe in God and believe in football, things happen.

SN: Are you still involved with the team?

NS: Yeah, I’m still connected with Larry [one of the coaches] and I practice with his youth soccer team and I still maintain myself because most of the people say they want me to come back and play. I play six times a week here in Seattle, although I don’t actually play that much in goal. I’m actually pretty decent on the field, in midfield. I sometimes play sweeper as I am taller than most of the opponents. I play goalkeeper when it’s a hard game to make sure we secure our rank as I play in a tough level. At the moment we are top of the league and every time we play a top team I go in goal.

SN: What next for American Samoa?

NS: In June we will start training and finding some teams to play against. We will have a camp in Hawaii and the first match in July with the World Cup Qualifiers starting in November.

SN: What did you think of the movie, Next Goal Wins?

NS: What I say at the end of the movie is true; I still want to go back and play against Australia. I really want to. If it doesn’t happen to me, my son loves football and he always tells me he wants to play Australia if I don’t. I hope the movie motivates the kids to play football. I hope the defeat to Samoa doesn’t put them off and they get the motivation to play football. I love football, it’s my world. I can’t live without it.

SN: You’re not the only one.

NS: My wife gets mad at me and says when will you stop playing football? And I say ‘never, I will surely play until I die’. My son keeps telling me he will one day play for the American Samoa national team. Hopefully. I want to thank Steve, Mike and Christian for coming down to make this movie.

Next Goal Wins is out on DVD now. You can find out more information about this extraordinary documentary on their website and find all of our coverage (including interviews, podcasts and reviews) here.

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