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31-0. It was the final score of a match between Australia and a team from Samoa.

If you’re expecting this article to be about rugby, I’ll have to disappoint you. This is a tale of the most lopsided competitive international football match in history, one with a scoreline so extraordinary that it has taken on its own urban legend to the extent that the first result Google returns for the search term ‘31-0’ is a Wikipedia article pertaining to the day in April 2001 that American Samoa made worldwide headlines for less than flattering reasons.

Of the six FIFA confederations, Oceania had the greatest disparity in standards between its best and worst teams. Australia may not have been to a World Cup in 27 years, but that owed substantially to FIFA only giving Oceania a play-off berth in qualification for the finals, rather than one automatic passage. The Socceroos were no worse than some of the teams who had appeared at World Cups in the 1990s, their chances of qualification enhanced by the tournament’s expansion from 24 teams to 32 for the 1998 finals in France. After missing out in a play-off to Iran for that tournament, they were intent on making it to South Korea and Japan for 2002.

Australia’s group for the first round of OFC qualification was typically unbalanced. They administered a 22-0 hammering of Tonga two days prior to facing American Samoa, who had lost to Fiji and Samoa by a combined score of 21-0. The Socceroos had already set a World Cup qualification record for the largest ever margin of victory with the mauling of Tonga. It was a record that looked set to be surpassed almost as soon as it was set. At the time, American Samoa were the lowest-ranked of all of FIFA’s 203 member nations. Every one of their previous 30 recognised international matches had ended in defeat.

As if the Australians needed any more of an advantage, they got one in the form of a customs oversight which restricted all but one of the American Samoa senior squad from travelling; as the vast majority of the squad held passports for Samoa, a sovereign state with its own FIFA affiliation, they were ineligible to feature. Goalkeeper Nicky Salapu had the dubious honour of being permitted to travel. Also, with most of the nation’s under-20 squad in the middle of school examinations, coach Tunoa Lui was forced to draft in numerous teenage players, including some as young as 15. The average age of his starting lineup was 18. Australia’s starting XI, which omitted several regulars, still contained players from the English and Scottish Premier Leagues.

On 11 April 2001, the 20,000-capacity International Sports Stadium at Coffs Harbour in New South Wales was about to witness history. No official attendance was recorded, but reports cited an estimated turnout of 3,000 on this Wednesday evening.

0-10 minutes: Australia 0-0 American Samoa

If Lui had set his players a target of getting to the 10-minute mark on level terms, they achieved it thanks to the heroics of Salapu in goal. The onslaught was inevitable and instant but he caught the eye with a series of excellent saves. Perhaps Australia wouldn’t be matching their 22-goal haul from the Tonga game after all.

10-20 minutes: Australia 6-0 American Samoa

Alas, the dam would burst in unforgiving fashion once Con Boutsianis broke the deadlock in the 10th minute. Three goals in as many minutes from Archie Thompson, David Zdrilic and Aurelio Vidmar followed, with a quickfire double from Tony Popovic completing a nine-minute spell in which Frank Farina’s men went from 0-0 to 6-0.

20-30 minutes: Australia 11-0 American Samoa

The next five Australian goals came like clockwork, with two-minute intervals between each. By the 27th minute, Zdrilic and Thompson completed their hat-tricks to nudge the Socceroos into double figures, with the latter netting his fourth of the night just before the half-hour. Australia were halfway to matching the scoreline against Tonga with two-thirds of the match still to play.

30-45 minutes: Australia 16-0 American Samoa

Australia netted five more goals before half-time, with four of them coming from Thompson, who had eight in the first half alone. Zdrilic got his fourth of the game on 33 minutes with the goal that made it 13-0. If there was a moral victory to be claimed for American Samoa, it was the nine-minute spell between 33 and 42 in which they only conceded once.

45-55 minutes: Australia 19-0 American Samoa

Popovic and Vidmar, two of Australia’s Europe-based contingent, were given the second half off, although with this being a World Cup qualifier, each team was permitted just three substitutions, depriving Farina of the chance to empty the bench as he would most likely have done in a friendly.

Boutsianis, whose goal began the scoring spree, also got the first goal after half-time, with Simon Colosimo and interval sub Fausto de Amicis adding their names to the scoresheet. For Colosimo, it was a redemptive moment; his career is best remembered for a horrendous injury he sustained in a game against Manchester United during the Red Devils’ pre-season Australian tour in 1999 after a reckless challenge from Andy Cole.

55-65 minutes: Australia 23-0 American Samoa

Thompson made it 20-0 on 56 minutes, with Zdrilic adding another just before the hour mark. Thompson soon reached double figures with his individual tally and, when he struck in the 65th minute with his 11th of the game, the goal ensured that the 22-0 record against Tonga would be surpassed. In the space of approximately 50 hours, Australia had twice broken the record for the largest ever victory in FIFA World Cup qualification.

65-80 minutes: Australia 25-0 American Samoa

The beleaguered visitors toughed out a 15-minute spell beyond the midway point of the second half in which they limited Australia to two goals. Both were scored by Zdrilic, with a 12-minute interlude between the two the longest that American Samoa would go without conceding in this match.

80-90 minutes: Australia 31-0 American Samoa

Following that comparatively lean spell for Australia, they would cut loose with another six goals in the final 10 minutes. Aurelio Vidmar and Colosimo both got their second of the game before Boutsianis became the third player to net a hat-trick.

Either side of two more goals for Thompson, which left him with an individual world record of 13 goals in an international match, came a rare highlight – a shot from American Samoa. It took 86 minutes, but at least it ensured that they avoided a zero in the shots column of the stats section. It was on target, too, giving Australian goalkeeper Michael Petkovic some overdue activity.

The final punishment was meted out by Zdrilic making it 31-0 in the final minute of normal time. He ended the match with eight goals, the second most scored by one player in a single senior international since World War I.

Such was the tidal wave of goals that the stadium scoreboard and official statistician were not in sync. The stadium displayed 32-0 and credited Thompson with 14 goals, but the statistician had 31-0 and 13 respectively, the latter count verified by the referee’s official report.

The aftermath

Bizarrely, American Samoa’s players and management seemed happier at the final whistle than the Australians. The visitors, under no illusion about the task that faced them, sung and danced with spectators after the final whistle. Salapu reflected with satisfaction that he “wasn’t embarrassed” by the final score, citing the passport problems which forced Lui to cobble together a team of greenhorn teenagers. The manager was satisfied that football on the island was making progress and felt that, “in five years, we will be competitive.”

Farina, by contrast, seemed irritated that Australia were being forced to play teams who were clearly far beneath their level. Even Thompson, who expressed satisfaction at his personal scoring accolade, said afterwards that “we don’t need to play these games.” This, and the succession of other routes in the same round of qualifiers, prompted the OFC to introduce a preliminary round for the 2006 World Cup so that teams of such disparate quality would be kept apart, thus preventing a repeat of the ridiculous scores churned out by the 2002 qualifiers. In the space of three days, Australia scored 53 goals in two games. San Marino, in almost three decades of international football, have scored 23 goals in 154 internationals.

What came of Australia after their record international victory? It came as no surprise that they made the intercontinental play-offs for the last of the 32 World Cup finals berths, but defeat to Uruguay meant that they again missed out. They finally made it to the grandest stage four years later, exacting revenge on the Uruguayans to qualify for the finals in Germany. A few months prior to that play-off triumph, they switched from the Oceanian to the Asian confederation in order to obtain more competitive games on a more regular basis.

Since the switch to Asia, they have qualified for each of the three World Cups that have been played. You could argue, then, that Australia benefitted from the 31-0 thrashing not for the record that they set, but for the longer-term changes that arose as a consequence of the least evenly-balanced match in the history of international football.

American Samoa’s progress, while far less game-changing, has been relatively significant. The hiring of Dutch native Thomas Rongen raised standards enormously and, while it would take them another 10 years to win their first football match, that 2-1 triumph over Tonga in a 2014 World Cup qualifier was a watershed moment in their history. Salapu, who also played that day, was in tears of joy at the final whistle, as was Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender player to feature in a men’s international match. In more ways than one, such a level of progress would have seemed incomprehensible on that day in April 2001 when American Samoa made global sporting headlines of a humiliating nature.