Like many children of Samoan descent, Faitalia Hamilton-Pama’s first sporting instinct was rugby.
“I wanted to play rugby league but we went to my first game and I was a bit shy and didn’t want to get out of the car and then my mum saw the boys we were supposed to play with.
“She was like ‘no you don’t play rugby league, I’m going to put you in a safer sport,'” Hamilton-Pama, the captain of the Samoa men’s football team, told me.
When it comes to rugby, Samoa punch well above their weight. The Polynesian island nation has a population of around 200,000 (the same as Salt Lake City), but the rugby union teams rank 14th (men) and 18th (women) in the world. In rugby league, the least played code, Samoa’s men’s team reached the final of the Rugby League World Cup this Saturday, November 19.
The FIFA World Cup starts the next day. Samoa have never come close to reaching the World Cup final. This year, however, Hamilton-Pama and his international teammates will look on with more hope than ever that they could one day share football’s greatest stage. There is an ambitious plan to put football on the map in this rugby-mad nation.
After unsuccessful campaigns, a global search for talent
Mention “football” and “Samoa” and some will remember Australia’s record 31-0 loss to American Samoa in 2001. Samoa, American Samoa’s largest neighbor to the west in south-central of the Pacific Ocean, have never lost by this margin. . Although he has already lost a lot.
Samoa play in the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), the weakest of FIFA’s six confederations. Not only have Samoa never reached a World Cup final in any age group for men or women, but the senior teams have also never made it to the third leg of OFC qualifying. In a sea of small fish, this is one of the smallest.
About two years ago, however, the Football Association of Samoa launched a plan to improve performance. New managers have been appointed for the men’s and women’s national teams and technical staff with international experience have been hired.
Part of the Federation’s thinking was an unlikely shot at the 2026 World Cup, which would be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico. From 2026, the final tournament will increase from 32 to 48 teams, offering, for the first time, a direct qualification place to the winners of the OFC qualifications.
New Zealand, OFC’s strongest team since Australia joined the Asian confederation in 2006, are expected to take that spot. But the new format also gives a place in the play-off to the OFC team finishing second in the group.
Buoyed by this unlikely opportunity, FA Samoa has launched a global campaign to recruit eligible players.
“The world is, especially in times of Covid, a much more connected place. So finding players who have heritage from their home country is a lot easier than it was years ago,” Samoa scouting and scouting manager Alastair McLae tells me.
“On my first day on the project, we didn’t even have a database of our existing players. Now we have 200 Samoans around the world that we have spotted who have almost joined the federation.
When McLae and his team joined the Federation, Samoan teams had “not kicked a ball in three years”, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a lack of competitive match opportunities. One of the first challenges was to convince potential players that the Samoa Football Association’s approach was not a joke.
The Scouting team has built a network of Samoan diaspora communities around the world and partnerships with community, educational and charitable organizations. Several players were discovered by word of mouth.
Male and female players were found in the club academies of the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga, the Australian A-League and the United States. McLae says 95% are eligible to represent Samoa through a grandparent’s legacy. Most of the players are amateurs or semi-professionals, which is the case for all OFC teams except New Zealand.
Around 40 Samoan passports have been processed for new players, with 75% of the senior women’s squad for the 2022 OFC Nations Cup found by scouts over the past two years. For the men’s Under-20 World Cup qualifiers, 18 of the 26 squad members were recruited from foreign clubs. The team reached the OFC qualifying quarter-finals for the first time.
Hamilton-Pama, 29, was born in New Zealand and qualified for Samoa through his mother. He is an apprentice plumber and centre-back for Auckland-based Western Springs and came to the attention of the Samoa national team after playing against them in a friendly match.
“Obviously I knew Samoa had a football pitch, but it wasn’t something I had on my radar,” said Hamilton-Pama, who made his debut in 2015.
“I spoke to my coach and my mum and she was like, ‘go for it. It’s an opportunity, it’s a blessing to be able to represent your country, whether it’s New Zealand or the Samoa.
Samoan scouts are not just looking for tactical and technical abilities. They also look for those whose personality traits fit into the culture of the national team and its national players.
“Do they align with the disciplines of a Samoan footballer? Are they passionate? Do they care about others? Do they shake hands at the end of the game? We look for those other mental elements of a player. If you’re on international duty, you’re representing your country,” McLae says.
“We’re trying to get more young players so we can develop them on this journey rather than finding a 30-year-old established professional player who doesn’t know anything about Samoa. If we find the 16, 17, 18-year-olds, 19, 20 years old, they are much more likely to evoke this Samoan culture and to have a long career on the Samoan international scene.
Samoa International Scouting Manager Russ Gurr is a former football video analyst. He is based in Edinburgh, Scotland, while McLae is in Auckland, New Zealand. Their combined “24 hour coverage of the world” has proven useful when trying to find players.
Gurr says they want a “sustainable” approach to scouting. They don’t just want superstars now, but young talent for the future.
“If you’re looking at a World Cup cycle, you want to get to a point where you find a team, a group of players, who are almost aspirations for that young audience. Then you can start to have players who look up to them and who want to play football for Samoa at a younger age,” he says.
An unlikely route to the World Cup
The 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign is a rare chance for Pacific Island teams to shine on the international stage. The most publicized appearance was previously Tahiti in the 2013 Confederations Cup, where the team conceded 24 goals and scored once in three matches.
As part of the OFC qualifiers, McLae points out that Samoa is not the only country investing in infrastructure and scouting. Teams like Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Fiji will be serious challengers.
However, there is “increased confidence” that Samoa can finish in place of the play-offs.
“If you keep that core group together and it’s all about contact time, then I think we’ll have a really good race and push for that second place,” he said.
Hamilton-Pama saw the changes in Samoan football lay “a foundation and a blueprint for us to be contenders”.
“There’s a big difference in direction and professionalism and what we want to achieve, not just as individuals, but as a group,” he says.
“It won’t be easy. But from the baby steps we’ve taken, I feel like we can be that dark horse and definitely cause some upset (in 2026 World Cup qualifying). For this next campaign, whether we get that second place or get out of the group stage or whatever, I feel like we have an opportunity to develop football in the islands.
“To give children, not just on the islands but of Samoan descent, a different path to follow. It’s not just rugby (union) or rugby league – football is an option.
If Samoa finish runners-up, they will take part in a six-team intercontinental play-off tournament, to decide the final two places for the 2026 World Cup. Whichever OFC team reaches the play-offs will clearly be a outsider.
But while Samoa in the World Cup final is still unlikely, it no longer seems impossible. The big dream of small islands is at least a little closer.