Danny Hall Column: After Valley’s 37-0 loss led to the team folding, when is enough enough in the greed for goals and glory?

Valley Juniors U13s
Valley Juniors U13s

It is nearly two decades since American Samoa - an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the South Pacific Ocean, southeast of [regular] Samoa - became members of Fifa, and were automatically installed as international football’s whipping boys.

Each of their first 30 matches ended in defeat; they conceded 217 times on the way. They shipped 31 in a single game, against Australia in 2001 - an international record, with Australian striker Archie Thompson’s 13-goal haul unlikely to be beaten for some years.

American Samoa goalkeeper Nicky Salapu lies on the pitch as yet another goal goes into the net in their 31-0 defeat to Australia

American Samoa goalkeeper Nicky Salapu lies on the pitch as yet another goal goes into the net in their 31-0 defeat to Australia

There were mitigating factors, of course; troubled by passport issues, American Samoa could only call upon one member of their original 20-man squad, goalkeeper Nicky Salapu. Due to high school exams at the time, they couldn’t play any of their U20 squad. They took to the field with two 15-year-olds in the team, and a number of players who’d never played a 90-minute match before.

The two-minute long YouTube clip of the game makes harrowing viewing, as Salapu becomes increasingly distraught everytime the ball hits the back of his net. He did, in mitigation, make a number of impressive saves to prevent further embarrassment, and some of Australia’s finishes were top class. But that was of little consolation to Salapu.

He responded by turning to drink and his life threatened to spiral out of control until a friend gifted him a PlayStation. He loaded the ‘Fifa’ football series of games, chose Australia v Samoa [because American Samoa aren’t on the game], left one controller idle and avenged his side’s record defeat with a 50-0 win of his own.

He did this every day for three years, and even continued the practice after upgrading to an Xbox in 2008.

It’s impossible to say that the practice turned his life around, but it provided interesting context ten years later, when Salapu - brought out of retirement - was part of the American Samoa team who beat Tonga 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier to register their first-ever win.

Their incredible journey was later made into a hit film, called ‘Next Goal Wins’ and when Salapu now plays on Fifa, against his son, he picks up his controller and picks Australia.

He can look back on one of the darkest days of his life with a smile. And a sense of redemption.

Kelsi Glenis will never have that chance. A 13-year-old goalkeeper from Rotherham, she was part of the Valley Juniors U13 side who lost 37-0 at home to to Phoenix Youth in D Division of the Sheffield and District Junior League just under two weeks ago. Poignantly, it was her first game back after breaking her foot. And it now looks like being her last.

For, unlike Nicky Salapu, Kelsi is unlikely to ever pull on her gloves and step foot on a football pitch again. Not least because her team - who played with just nine players against Phoenix - have now folded, because so many of her teammates had their enjoyment of the game quashed one Sunday morning.

Win, lose or draw, football is supposed to be about enjoyment. But what happens when the will - or the obsession - to win takes over?

“I felt embarrassment at being humiliated, and the kids must have felt the same,” Andrew Plant, the team’s coach, told me.

“Phoenix were 20-0 up at half time but still their coaches wanted more from them, and at full time they acted as if they’d won the World Cup. As a coach, I didn’t have a clue what to do to help the players recover from it. At the end, they all looked really lost but what could I have said?”

One Valley player, Russell - who went in goal for the second half - apologised to his coach at full-time because he “couldn’t stop the other team scoring”.

“I told him he had nothing to be sorry for,” Plant added.

“But now there’s a team of kids who won’t play football again, because of this. I just hope the other coach is happy.”

Kelsi - described by Plant as a “good goalkeeper, a confidence player who had the respect of her team-mates” - says their embarrassment was dddcompounded when an article on the result - naming Valley as the losing team - was published in the Rotherham Advertiser, and later ended up on page nine of The Sun.

“I felt let down by the players that didn’t turn up,” she says, “but I also felt like I was being laughed at.

“Then I felt humiliated even more when it went in the ‘paper. It’s ruined the whole thought of playing football for me.”

The Advertiser article said that the 37-0 win had league officials “thumbing through the record books”. In actual fact, it had them looking at what Phoenix could have done to avoid such a one-sided - and damaging - scoreline.

Examples include implementing a two-touch rule, bringing the goalkeeper out and putting him/her upfront or requiring a certain number of passes before shooting.

“We have spent a lot of time reminding people of the FA advice on how to deal with a mismatch,” a league spokesperson said.

“This is especially important as goal-difference does not count in youth football.”

After all, does winning a game 37-0 benefit your team anymore than winning by, say, eight?

Some dinosaurs, of course, will say yes; it does. ‘We can’t wrap our kids in cotton wool forever, can we? Get ‘em out there and teach them the harsh lessons in life.’

My column a while ago, on switching kids’ football to the summer, attracted similar views. One Twitter user said kids at U9 level should ‘man up’ and get on with playing on mudbaths. His argument was that Germany’s kids play in the winter, too, and they’ve just won the World Cup.

Back on Planet Earth, a colleague told me that a goalkeeper in his son’s junior game, on a bitterly baltic Sunday afternoon, was substituted the other week. Because he was so cold.

For the sake of kids like this, and for kids like Kelsi, it’s important we remain open to change.

Otherwise, footballing fairytales like that of Nicky Salapu, could become a thing of the past. And many more frustrated footballers will fall out of love with the game, and end up on their Playstations instead.

Maybe Helen Lovejoy on the Simpsons was right. Won’t somebody please think of the children?