Imagine the worst day of your working life. Then imagine the whole world knowing about it and being reminded about it constantly over a decade. Nicky Salapu was the goalkeeper for American Samoa when they were beaten 31-0 by Australia in 2001, which remains the record defeat in international competition.

Salapu didn't quit. He ignored the barbs and the constant jibes and kept on playing. In one of the feel good sporting stories of the year - move over Stephen Donald - Salapu has found redemption.

Ten years on, he has starred for American Samoa this week in stage one of Oceania World Cup qualifying, making several crucial saves as the tiny US protectorate recorded its first ever win (2-1 vs Tonga), after 30 consecutive losses. Two days later they grabbed an historic draw (1-1 vs Cook Islands).

Salapu is the only survivor from 2001 and today they face hosts Samoa with the winner moving on to the second stage next year, which will feature the All Whites. Salapu has made history for the second time but this version is much more wanted.

Advertisement

"You know what, before that first victory everything was on my shoulders, on my back, on my brain - just all of that frustration," he told the Herald on Sunday. "[Over the years] so many players kept asking me [who I played for] and then telling me 'Oh, you guys are the ones that lost 31-0'. It's frustrating and embarrassing."

Salapu, who has lived in the USA for the last eight years, says he can now return home with his head held high: "Right now [it feels like] everything is all gone. I'll bury that over here and go back to Seattle and everything will be perfect."

National coach Thomas Rongen, a former MLS and US under-20 coach who has been 'loaned' to America Samoa, noted the extreme satisfaction and relief felt by his goalkeeper.

"This guy's got major demons going on," Rongen told the Sydney Morning Herald. "He's totally driven by the 31-0 score and erasing it for himself and his family. When he mentions American Samoa, people say, 'You're the guy that gave up 31 goals.' But he said to me after the win, 'I'm healed, I'm cured.' There are incredible scars there."

Sometimes statistics can be shaped but there are no twists in this tale. Before last week American Samoa's record was played 30, lost 30, 12 goals for, 229 goals against. In 12 World Cup qualifying matches, they had conceded 129 goals and notched just two.

That infamous game in Coffs Harbour remains one of the most bizarre sporting mismatches. Archie Thompson scored a world record 13 goals while David Zdrilic grabbed eight, the second highest individual haul since World War One. After being held out for the first 10 minutes, the Socceroos accumulated 16 goals by halftime. Salapu actually made some impressive saves as his defence crumbled around him but that was rarely noted as the world laughed. British newspapers joked that Salapu had "held Australia to 31" while the New York Times made much of the electronic scoreboard having a meltdown and displaying the score as 32-0.

A Google search on the game reveals almost 88 million hits, most veering towards the comedy rather than sporting theme, with titles like 'A goalie with a difference'.

What was overlooked was the mitigating factors around the game. A FIFA decree just before the tournament meant that US citizens were not eligible and all players had to hold American Samoan nationality. That ruling, combined with passport issues, meant that Salapu was one of the few members of the original 20-man squad able to travel to Australia.

The federation were also unable to bring in players from their under-20 side as most were sitting high school exams at the time so they had to turn to youth players. There were three 15-year-olds in the side that had an average age of just 18 and some had reputedly never played a full 90-minute match.

The result sparked change, leading to the current scenario where the smaller island nations play in preliminary tournaments before meeting the big boys.

"It makes me excited because the younger generation is going to look up and say I want to be a part of that team," says Salapu. "We've proved to everyone that we're not the same team that lost 31-0. I'm very proud of what we've done to make that difference."

American Samoa have also fielded the first transgender player to play a World Cup match. Defender Johnny Saelua, who has previously played American football, is a Fa'afafine, a biological male raised as a female, common in Samoan culture.

"I've really got a female starting at centre back," Rongen told an American newspaper. "Can you imagine that in England or Spain?"

Samoa will be favourites to progress in Apia today, but just being in contention has been a huge buzz for Salapu and his men.

"It's a big thing, it's a big deal for us," says Salapu. "You know, we've never been here. We know that a lot of people around the world are talking about us and that's overwhelming."

The eventual group winners will join Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Vanuatu and the All Whites in the second stage. The results mean that American Samoa will also move off the bottom of the FIFA rankings.

Salapu will return to the USA next week but the 33-year-old has no thoughts of retirement: "I play six times a week in Seattle but not for a big club," says Salapu. "It's mainly for fun and to maintain my fitness. I just love soccer." Our hero has just one more item remaining on his football bucket list.

"For me personally, after that experience [31-0]," he laughs, "I really want to go back and play Australia one more time before I die."

AMERICAN SAMOA
* Area: Consists of seven islands comprising a total of 197 square kilometres.

* Population: 55,000.

* Official languages: English and Samoan.

* American Samoa reputedly produces more NFL players per capita than any other nation.