A decade after leaving her home nation’s shores, Meripa Seumanutafa has returned to Samoa to fulfil her national duty at the OFC U-16 Women’s Championship 2017 and the goalkeeper is completely in her element.
“It feels great to be back here,” she said.
“I’ve learned so much throughout this competition. Being on the field and handling the pressure of losing and winning has been one of the biggest challenges for me but I’ve been working hard to keep my confidence up.
“Overcoming all of the challenges – the good and bad – has been my favourite part of this competition. I’m learning from all of them and it has been really good for my development.”
One of Seumanutafa’s earliest challenges was joining the mix of international recruits and domestic players in the Samoa U-16 women’s national team.
“When we all first came together, some of us were really nervous because we didn’t know each other but we had to try and communicate and work together. It was hard at first but now it’s good,” she said.
“I feel like this is my family. We all feel like sisters right now and we all have a really great bond. I love it.”
Like most goalkeepers, Seumanutafa’s football career kicked off in the outfield but quick thinking on the ball – and her fearless approach – earned her the gloves in 13th grade.
“I started football when I was in year seven. I played for Papakura – Kura City – in defence then I moved to striker and then goalkeeper,” she said.
“I actually don’t know how I ended up there – I just got picked to play in goal in 13th grade and carried on from there – but I’m happy in goal. I love it.”
Representing Samoa at the OFC U-16 Women’s Championship has been a life-changing journey for Seumanutafa, but the keeper’s impressive campaign may never have happened if it weren’t for a chance meeting with Samoa Technical Director Valerio Raccuglia back in New Zealand.
“We were over in Auckland for the OFC Technical Directors course and we went to watch Papakura’s training next door to our accommodation. It was just a coincidence – I walked by and she looked Samoan,” Raccuglia said.
“I was very impressed when I first saw her so I asked OFC Goalkeeping Consultant James Bannatyne to have a look at her and he confirmed what I thought of her.
“We started the process of getting her passport straight away and now she’s here.”
Seumanutafa has only further validated Raccuglia’s initial impressions throughout her OFC U-16 Women’s Championship campaign, slotting into the team well and keeping Samoa’s semi-final hopes alive with two outstanding performances.
“She’s done well settling in. We brought players in from lots of different areas so it took a little while for us all to gel but now we’ve all come together and she’s become a big part of the group,” he said.
“Not to be arrogant but I think she is one of the best keepers of the tournament. She’s got lots of potential and we’re very happy having her around.
“She’s got a great attitude. She’s a winner.”
Although Seumanutafa has been playing a key role in Papakura City’s bid for promotion in the AFF/NFF Women’s Conference division, senior women’s coach Liam Martin was more than happy to release his starting keeper while she fulfilled her national duty.
“When I got word that there was even the slightest possibility that Meripa would be called up to play for Samoa, I was very excited for her. For anyone to get a call-up to represent their country at any age is an honour,” he said.
“I’ve worked with goalkeepers in the past who have gone on to professional contracts and scholarships in the United States and I can honestly say that Meripa has the best natural ability of any other female goalkeeper I have worked with.
“Meripa has taken some big steps coming off a season with our 15th grade girls team last year then progressing into the women’s first team and now representing Samoa at the U-16 level. It’s great exposure that will hopefully aid in her progressing further towards her goals.”
Seumanutafa will be taking another huge step in her development on Saturday when she takes the field for Samoa against her other home nation – and the defending champions – New Zealand.
Although she’s well aware of the physical and mental test awaiting her, Seumanutafa is looking forward to taking the field and making both countries proud.
“I’m really nervous but it will be a good test for us girls, our confidence and how we play as a team. It’s going to be a good game,” she said.
“I’m nervous and excited at the same time because I’m representing both my home country and my current country.”
Samoa will play New Zealand in their final match of Group A at J.S. Blatter Football Complex in Apia, Samoa, at 5pm (WST) on Saturday 12 August.