It might represent relatively modest progress in global terms, but Samoa are slowly but surely making waves in Oceania. The Polynesian nation have long battled to make an impact in their region yet, as of last December, they found themselves catapulted to second in the continent’s pecking order. It is quite a leap considering the previous month they were ranked equal bottom in Oceania, alongside neighbours American Samoa.
At 150, Samoa are now only four positions shy of their best-ever position on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, achieved just over four years ago. Equally remarkable is that Samoa are only 31 positions away from regional kings New Zealand, who famously competed at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ without suffering defeat.
Samoa’s leap in the global pecking order is due of course to positive results, but just stepping onto the pitch is a victory of sorts for the Polynesians. After all, they did not take to the field for a full international between completing FIFA World Cup qualifiers in August 2007, and a pair of matches against Fiji almost four years later to the day. Unlike eight of their fellow Oceania nations, Samoa did not participate at last September’s South Pacific Games, thus missing further matches and the chance to accrue additional points.
Instead, Tunoa Lui’s side made do with the two-match series against Fiji, ahead of their much-anticipated return to the FIFA World Cup stage. Hosting Oceania's four-nation Round One qualifiers last November at the J.S. Blatter Stadium in the capital Apia proved to be both a joyous and historic occasion for Samoan football, albeit one full of drama.
Just one team would progress to Round Two, with Samoa jostling alongside fellow Polynesian nations American Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga, and with only three matches each, there was little margin for error. Samoa set the early pace thanks to an injury-time win against Cook Islands. The following match with Tonga was drawn, which meant the hosts entered the final match against American Samoain the knowledge that a share of the spoils would be sufficient.
A history-making result was assured whatever the outcome, with neither nation having previously progressed to the second stage of qualifying. Despite being in one of the globe's most remote regions, a tense derby duly ensued much like it would in any part of the world between two neighbours vying for local supremacy. And much like Samoa’s rise up the world rankings, again it was a case of fine margins as Silao Malo etched his name into local folklore with a last-minute winner.
Bigger fish to fry
Awaiting Samoa in June’s Round Two - which doubles as the OFC Nations Cup and thus provides the winner with passage to the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup - will be Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Tahiti. The other group comprises Fiji, hosts Solomon Islands, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, with the top four advancing to the third and final stage of Oceanian FIFA World Cup qualifying.
Advancing further will be a monumental task for Samoa, whose 200,000 inhabitants is a figure dwarfed by many of their upcoming Round Two competitors. If they are to succeed the Polynesians will need all their famous warrior spirit of the kind regularly witnessed on a grander stage by Tim Cahill, the Australia and Everton midfielder who willingly and frequently displays pride in his Samoan heritage.
Whatever happens, not only have large strides been made, but Samoa - after so little international exposure in recent years - are almost certainly assured of further progress in the global ranking.