DIRECTED BY: Mike Brett and Steve Jamison
STARRING: Thomas Rongen, Jaiyah Saelua, Nicky Salapu, Gene Ne’emia, Larry Mana’o, Rawlston Masaniai, Lofi Lalogafuafua, Liatama Jr. Amisone, Ramin Ott and Charles Uhrle
Next Goal Wins is a documentary, released back in 2014, that focuses on the national football team of American Samoa. In 2001, the tiny Pacific island of American Samoa would suffer a world record defeat against Australia, 31-0, making headlines across the world as being the worst football team on the planet. A decade passes after that humiliating night and American Samoa remain rooted to the bottom of the FIFA world rankings and have only managed to score twice in seventeen years. Now, with the team facing the daunting prospect of a qualification campaign for the upcoming 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the FFSA request help from the U.S Soccer Federation to help turn the team’s fortunes around…enter Dutch-born, American-based coach Thomas Rongen, who has just a month to transform his ragtag group into winners and perhaps learn a little about himself along the way.
Next Goal Wins was (still is) a well received documentary amongst critics, as it still rates in at 100% on the Tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes, with an audience score of 89%. While it has been out for over six years, it wasn’t until I noticed this week that it’s available to watch for Amazon Prime subscribers in the UK/Ireland that I finally sat down to watch it, before we get the film adaptation from Taika Waititi whenever that gets a cinematic release.
While the focus is on the overall American Samoa football team, there are a few individuals that are the key anchors of the documentaries narrative structure. There’s the goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, the emotionally scarred goalkeeper who conceded the thirty-one goals in the game against Australia that is convinced to come out of retirement to help the team in the qualifiers at the OFC World Cup Qualification round. There’s also the newly brought in coach Thomas Rongen, who used to play alongside George Best and Johan Cryuff at Los Angeles Aztecs in the late 1970’s, and at the time of taking on the position at American Samoa, had coached for a few years at the United States Under-20’s team. Last, but definitely not least, is Jaiyah Saelua, a member of American Samoa’s third gender, the fa’fafine (way of the woman), who would become the first openly transgender player to compete in a World Cup qualifier. While football fans will be immediately drawn to the material that documentary sets, there’s so much enthusiasm, charm and camaraderie amongst the individuals involved in the FFSA setup, from the players to the coach, that you can’t help but be immersed in the story, as we witness their lack of apprehensiveness and wanting to be a part of history, representing their country and pathing the way for others to follow them in the years to come, you can’t help but be captivated by it. It’s interesting to witness Thomas Rongen, who arrives with an initial hard-as-nails approach to coaching, and leaves with a sense of reinvention after embracing the culture of the nation and how he approaches the game moving forward and we witness how he visibly feels moved by the experience, especially having suffered tragedy that’s explored in this documentary. The star of the documentary is Jaiyah Saelua, whose commitment to the game and hard tackling earns her the respect of the coach and the players around her, and her personality shines through on screen.
There is some that might feel that the documentary journey will feel predictable (heaven forbid though that a true story does that) in its how the narrative is put together, especially if you’ve grown up watching sports films generally. While we get a good few talking heads in this documentary, there is a few that I might of liked to heard more from, particularly how the off-island players that were brought in to help out, with Ramin Ott, who is located 6,000 miles away serving for the US military and takes up his entire annual leave in order to participate in the OFC World Cup Qualification round. There’s also Rawlston Masaniai, a Californian of American Samoan descent who joins the team to honour his grandparents. While we see more of Ott than Masaniai, I would’ve liked to have known more of their experience arriving on camp and how they got on with their teammates.
While there’s many reasons as to why people have a certain view towards football now and all the money that comes with it, Next Goal Wins is a beautiful, uplifting reminder of why so many people around the world love the sport so much. Let’s hope the film adaptation from Taika Waititi recaptures that.