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Paaga power pushes American Samoa

At just 18 years of age, Paaga cuts an impressive figure and there’s little wonder coach Rupeni Luvu opted to name the speedy spirited youngster as the man for the toughest job in the team.
But putting himself on the line is nothing new for a player who performed at the 40,000 seater capacity Hong Kong Stadium back in March, albeit in a different sporting code.
“I played at the Hong Kong Sevens against Italy, Tunisia and Hong Kong. I tried my best as the youngest player in our team to play hard.
“When I came back from Hong Kong the soccer federation contacted me to select me for this team. I used the fitness I gained at the Hong Kong Sevens to use this opportunity to represent my country, my islands, here in Fiji,” he says.
Paaga’s best match for American Samoa at the OFC U-20 Championship so far was without doubt the spirited 1-1 draw with Papua New Guinea.
Paaga, along with team-mates Sam Kome, Rafael Rocha, Sinisa Tua, Fred Maiava and Johnny Sione, shone on a history making day for the sport in their country.
It was the first time since 1998 that American Samoa had avoided defeat ending a 16 year wait.
Involved in a first minute collision with Papua New Guinea goalkeeper Koniel Vagi, Paaga is under no illusion that his team deserved a penalty in that match, perhaps turning that draw into a win.
“The ball got played over their defence and I tried to place the ball over the goalkeeper but he slid into me and thats why I fell down. It was a penalty.
“But the tournament is very hard for us – we’ve prepared for this tournament for only a few months while other teams have had much longer,” he says.
For a team that has been thrown together in a matter of weeks, Paaga believes the team’s enormous spirit and dedication deserve plaudits.
“This is my first time in the national team before that I never really played soccer much. Our preparation is not as good as other teams but we must all use this opportunity wisely,” he says.
Opportunities are a subject Paaga knows a thing or two about.
Now two years into his college course, Paaga has had approaches to play American Football and rugby from all over his island.
But the Tafuna teen, like many of those in his age bracket, sees a future for himself abroad.
“I’m in college and I’ve been taking classes for two years in American Samoa and I have a scholarship. But one day I would like to go to the US mainland.
“I played American Football for my high school, Tafuna, and after high school I got a scholarship for self-defence,” he explains.
Paaga’s in no danger of running short of sporting opportunities but he says when it comes to comparing the other sports with football there’s only one in his mind that’s harder than the rest.
“Soccer is much tougher than sevens because you have to run for 90 minutes without stopping. In sevens the halves are only seven minutes long and you get time to rest when the ball is out of play,” he says.
As if to underscore the youngster’s credentials as a knowledgeable source of evidence for such a statement, Paaga goes into unprompted detail about which footballers he admires as the epitome of excellence.
“I have three favourite soccer players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho. They’re my inspiration to play soccer. Ronaldo’s skills, his ball control, and how he uses them are amazing – he is a great athlete.
“I’d like to be as good as Ronaldo but it’s tough for me because so many people want me to play rugby for their team, so I don’t get time to practice my soccer skills as much,” he says.
American Samoa round off their tournament on Saturday when they face New Caledonia and Paaga, like his coach Rupeni Luvu, remains fixed on winning their final game.
The never-give-in attitude is admirable but the results, while American Samoa’s best ever at this level, have still been defeats, outwith the draw with Papua New Guinea.
Paaga thinks improved communication to go along with their defensive shape may be the missing ingredient.
“We play hard a lot of times our communication doesn’t work in a game and I try my best to tell the guys to talk more in the game.
“Any time we pass the ball we don’t talk to each other and we lose it,” he says, “But we give our best, all the time.”
The match between American Samoa and New Caledonia kicks off at 2.30pm at ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
Live streaming of the game can be watched at OFC’s official YouTube channel.

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