WELLINGTON, New Zealand: The return of the American Samoa women’s football team to World Cup competition for the first time in 20 years has been both a national and a family celebration.
The team is competing with three others at the Oceania Women’s Nations Cup in Fiji, the first stage of a qualifying process which will eventually involve all 11 Oceania member nations and will find the confederation’s representative at the 2019 Women’s World Cup and 2020 Olympic games.
American Samoa’s two decade exile from World Cup competition and 11-year absence from Oceania tournaments is due in large part to its struggle to field a competitive team in a nation with a population of only 55,000.
Its return is largely due to the efforts of Seattle-based national coach Larry Mana’o who uncovered a number of players living in the United States who are eligible to play for the Pacific Island nation.
Ten of Mana’o’s current squad of 18 players are based in the United States, but his squad also includes three of his daughters and a niece, making the team’s participation in the Nations Cup a family affair.
Mana’o enjoys the rare distinction of having coached both male and female teams in World Cup competitions. The nation’s men’s team suffered a 31-0 loss to Australia in World Cup qualifying in 2002 ? an unenviable world record – but achieved its first-ever international victory 10 years later.
Mana’o first coached the men’s team in 2015, to World Cup qualifying wins over Tonga and the Cook Islands, and took charge of the women’s team in 2011.
Of the United States-based players in his current squad, two, Ashley Hall and Louis Mavaega, were born in American Samoa. Mana’o’s daughters Alam and Ava, from Seattle, are the only players based in the United States who have previously represented American Samoa.
“This is a different look for our team,” Mana’o said. “We have more different players from different places.
“I am privileged and honored to have my three daughters and a niece as part of this team here in Fiji and as a coach I am so happy to have them.
“This makes me feel extra special about this campaign as we all get together as a family for the country.”
American Samoa lost 1-0 to Vanuatu and 2-0 to the Solomon Islands in its first two matches in Fiji but Mana’o said the experience of playing in a qualifying tournament would be positive for the team.
“A lot of these kids are younger than the teams we’ve taken in the past for our senior women so it will be a positive experience regardless of what happens,” he said.
Sisters Alma, Ava and Severina Mana’o are joined in the current American Samoa squad by cousin Haleigh Mana’o.
Alma, 24 and Ava, 22, are veterans by the team’s standards while Severina, 17, and Haleigh, 21, are relative newcomers. The oldest member of the team is 27, the youngest 14, and 10 are in their teens.
“Football is in our blood. The whole family plays and that is how I got into football,” Alma Mana’o said.
“We all stay in different parts of the world and today we are together because of football and I would say it is true that football brings everyone together.” -AP