“Next Goal Wins” is a documentary about the American Samoa national football team. In 2011, they were ranked the worst team in the world on FIFA’s rankings including a loss of 31-0 in 2001 against Australia. The film follows the team and their coach by loan appointment, Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, as they seek to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
I have to admit that I’m not a soccer fan. It doesn’t really fascinate me in the way that Rugby League or Athletics does, but I was drawn to this film for its human interest angle. (Plus, I needed something relaxing to watch after running for 10 kilometres earlier the same day).
I’m going to say from the outset that I love this film. The reason that I love it is because it shows the best qualities that sport – any type of sport – can bring out in people (which was a refreshing change after seeing “The Armstrong Lie” several months ago which, whilst fascinating in its subject matter, did leave me feeling a little jaded about the integrity of elements within the sporting community). Qualities such as comradeship, playing the game simply for the love of it and being determined to work for “a greater good”.
A documentary about the then christened “World’s Worst Soccer Team” could have been seen as nothing more than a joke if the film was handled in the wrong manner, so thank goodness that directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison handle the subject matter with sensitivity and humanity. The players are never treated as a joke at any point in this film. They are treated as people who not only play football for the sheer love of the game, but also as people who have their own day-to-day challenges including having to move off island to escape the unemployment trap by joining the military or having to hold down several jobs to make ends meet. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have humour, it does, but it’s very much a case of laughing alongside this group of players, rather than poking fun at them.
Whilst the film takes the team as a whole as the “source material”, it very much focuses on three people within the team as lead characters namely coach Thomas Rongen, goalkeeper Nicky Salapu and defender Jaiyah Saelua.
Rongen comes across as a man who lives life to the beat of his own drum. He takes a risk by being the only applicant for the American Samoa coaching role, but he challenges the team to think that they are better than the lowly reputation that has been heaped upon them whilst giving them the technical and physical tools to better themselves. The reasons for his taking on the role become apparent towards the middle of the film and this adds additional humanity to Thomas, rather than being a stereotypical gruff coach.
Salapu was the goalkeeper for the game in 2001 where they were beaten 31-0 and comes across as a bit of a “Rocky” figure. Whilst he now lives in Seattle, he can’t get away from being tagged as the goalkeeper on a team who lost by that margin, and throughout the film Nicky is treated sympathetically as a man who has unfinished business due to that tag.
But it’s Jaiyah Saelua who has the hardest path to travel during the film and the most courageous journey. Saelua is a member of American Samoa’s third gender, the Fa’fafine, which whilst accepted within the American Samoa society sees her targeted by opposition players, to the point that the coaches use her passport name on the pitch. As becomes apparent in the film, Thomas uses Jaiyah’s accepted name and treats her as a member of the team, an equal, and develops her into a tough tackling defender to the point of naming Jaiyah as “Player of the Game” for one of the qualification games.
If you feel cynical or jaded about the current state of sport in this “must win” and commercially driven era, please try to see “Next Goal Wins” as it tells a story of how sport should be played and how people should treat people in any walk of life, plus it’ll get you cheering for American Samoa by the end.
If you’re a soccer fan: Get In The Queue (especially as it will no doubt be on limited release)
If you’re a sports fan or want to just see an uplifting documentary: Wait A While (dependent on the release schedules for this film in your locality)