Next Goal Wins is a small but aspiring and inspirational documentary about the American Samoa football team who infamously lost to Australia 31-0. It chronicles the team’s efforts as they try to recover from both the indignity of such a humiliating defeat, leading to them being named the worst football team in the world, and to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
As should be the case with all good documentaries that zero in on not only a specific subject but a specific part of that subject, Next Goal Wins is accessible to both fans of football and those who couldn’t care less about it. If, like me, you fall into the latter category this is a delightfully accessible story even for an outsider looking in that is a compelling exploration of what it means to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep at it. Don’t get me wrong, for those interested in the sport it provides much to dig your teeth into – the football itself is shot with a slick professionalism – but you don’t need to have an interest to enjoy it.
We are introduced to the team, most of them non-paid players who have regular lives with regular jobs, as down on their luck but still with a twinkle of hope in their eyes that one day they will show people they can compete, if not exactly win. They then decide to inject some vital discipline and motivation into the team in the form of hired Dutch-born, American coach Thomas Rongen.
Rongen appears at first to be a no-nonsense hard-ass who couldn’t give a damn about anything in the player’s lives but how they play on the field. This is much needed at first but Rongen soon becomes not only an integral part of the why the team is doing much better than they were before but a true part of the team’s world, sharing their heart, soul and unwavering determination to prove themselves. He is a real character, as they say, always a joy to watch whether he’s literally sliding down in the muck with the team as they try to perfect tackling to giving the most rousing sporting speeches since Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. And with Rongen, the documentary manages to create a great sense of character development most narrative movies would kill for.
The film also does a fantastic job of delving into the different aspects of the game including how the diverse culture of their country impacts on it and more specifically how the individual players approach it, both in terms of playing style and juggling the playing with everyday life. One of the pinpointed stories involves Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper who feels the weight of the perpetual defeat, and especially that epic loss of 31-0, on his shoulders more than the rest of his fellow teammates as he is the last line of defence for them. While another particularly fascinating subplot involves the transgender player on the team, Jaiyah Saelua, exploring how her gender unfortunately affects the way people view her in a male-dominated sport and how she feels safe in the American Samoa team. Alhough there’s less time devoted to majority of the players than there probably should be, with more of a focus on a select few, the film nonetheless gives interesting insight into the mindset it takes to keep at it even when failure seems to be around every corner.
Directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison have made an impressive debut with this passionate crowd-pleaser. It’s an enjoyably breezy watch that never gets bogged down while at the same time chucking us head first into its world, giving us an insighftul, well-rounded view of the sport and the people. While it does labor its point towards the end of the film as it searches for that perfect sign-off line, that’s something that can be easily forgiven when it’s so well-intentioned. It paints the beautiful game, well, beautifully and tells an inspiring story about human perseverance, determination and unbreakable spirit in the face of adversity.