Did you know American Samoa has a national football team? If, like me, you didn’t, you won’t be surprised to learn that it ranks absolutely last on FIFA’s world rankings and regularly does things like lose 31-0 to Australia. Or did, as with the arrival of new Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, they managed to book their first victory ever, against Tonga:
In October they agreed to loan Thomas Rongen, an Ajax-trained disciple of Total Football who had managed four Major League Soccer teams as well as the US Under-20 side for almost 10 years, for the duration of the tournament. The transformation after Rongen’s arrival was, says Brodie, profound. Within a week of the arrival of the “Palagi” – the Samoan word for white off-islanders which translates literally as “cloud-burster” – the improvements in organisation and discipline were extraordinary. Most significantly, though, was the change in mentality his coaching had brought, so much so that when they defeated Tonga 2-1 on Tuesday and drew 1-1 with Cook Islands on Friday there was no complacency – the players were frustrated at not keeping clean sheets.
Rongen has been with the team for less than a month and found the tactical reorganisation easier than the psychological one. “I am steeped in the Dutch football tradition,” he says. “The teachings of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff and a technical brand of football is my motivation but what I encountered here was the exact opposite. So I had to adapt. I went from an old-style 4-4-2 to a more modern 4-2-3-1 because since it’s obvious that they give away too many goals, I thought four defenders and two holders would help. It’s easier to teach inexperienced players how to defend than to attack but we’ve made great strides in organisation and communication.
Thomas Rongen is not very well known here, having spent most of his playing career after having been trained at Ajax in the various US/American league. He later became a coach, working e.g. at DC United (did you know Washington DC has a professional soccer team?) and the US national U-21 team. Dutch football coaches in general are very popular for ailing national teams — Guus Hiddink has build his career doing this — and it’s nice to see Rongen do his bit for a national team of a country with a population barely enough for a small town.
Rongen and his coaching is not the only interesting thing about the team though: it must be the only national teams which has an openly transgender person playing:
The other breaker of barriers in the squad is Johnny “Jayiah” Saelua, a fa’afafine, biologically male but identified as a third sex widely accepted in Polynesian culture. She – and she prefers she – is the first transgender player to compete in a World Cup match and has formed a centre-half partnership with the Arizona-based Rawlston Masaniai, who along with other team-mates, calls her “sister”. “There is no discrimination,” she says. “I put aside whether I’m a girl or a boy and just concentrate on playing. I think I add a third dimension to the team, collect my energies and keep the team together, that’s my responsibility as the fa’afafine, the feminine.”
Sepp Blatter has reassured us that racism in football is non-existent, but homophobia is still rampant, with few openly gay players and fewer openly gay players still actively playing, even in supposedly enlightened countries like the Netherlands. And homosexuality is much more accepted (or so it seems) than transgender/genderqueer people still are, so it’s nice to see how matter of fact the American Samoan team is about their team mate’s gender.