Next Goal Wins opens with footage of the heaviest defeat ever suffered in an international match, the film’s protagonists American Samoa losing 31-0 to Australia in 2001.
At its essence, Next Goal Wins is the classic underdog movie, joining the lowest FIFA ranked team as they prepare for the South Pacific Games in the idyllic but ill-equipped surroundings of their Pago Pago base, with little hope of scoring a goal in the tournament – let alone recording a victory.
The stars of the film are not international football’s highly-paid superstars, but the teamwork, spirit in the face of adversity, and love of the beautiful game displayed by this squad of amateur players. The film does however show up some interesting characters. From Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper who let in those record 31 goals, to Jaiyah Saelua, the first fa’afafine (Samoa’s third gender) player to play in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match.
Larry Mana’o, American Samoa’s volunteer coach going into the South Pacific Games in New Caledonia valiantly attempts to train and motivate the team for the tournament, but his efforts are in vain as the team suffer some heavy defeats. With little signs of improvement evident, the American Samoans reach out to the U.S. Soccer federation for help, who send Thomas Rongen, a Dutchman working in the MLS. Rongen arrives on the island on his own journey of discovery and self-improvement, and immediately his tough and sometimes abrasive character juxtaposes with the islander’s laid-back nature as he attempts to get the team organised, fit, and playing as a unit.
Thomas Rongen’s short time whipping the team into shape for the World Cup qualifiers quickly becomes the central narrative of the film, as he and the players make an extraordinary journey together. Clearly driven, there are moments at the start of Rongen’s time with the Samoans that his character appears as if it will be too abrasive and confrontational for the Pacific mentality, but as he works through his training plan with the team, there are moments of genuine emotion and we see the Dutchman soften and bond with his players. Along with Nicky Salapu and Jaiyah Saelua, it is Rongen’s character which makes Next Goal Wins stand on its own as a film and not solely a document of a football team’s progress, the coach’s wit and sense of comic timing enhancing the experience as much as his motivational speeches and personal, cathartic journey.
There is something about football that can seduce men and women from every corner of the world. This power can be used to bring people together and bring shared moments that cannot be expressed in words. Next Goal Wins teaches us that not winning something doesn’t necessarily mean we lose something. Not winning can give us power and motivation to achieve our goals.
This documentary is not only a portrait of the beauty and value of people working together as a team with love and sacrifice, it is an example of a happy society built up by happy people, who appreciate each other just the way they are and put their effort together to achieve a common goal, giving each other their full support.
The spectator wants to be part of the American Samoan team from the first minutes of the film. Every little detail in this documentary is precious and worth watching, almost every scene is a deep breath of inner freedom.
Next Goal Wins Trailer :
Disclaimer: We were sent a free copy of the film to review. This film was reviewed by myself and Marta.