It’s a sad fact about sport that there have to be losers. The good news is that it’s the taking part that counts. Or so we tell ourselves. The unbelievably moving Next Goal Wins follows a football team that learns this lesson the hard way.
Some teams have to contend with a lot more losing than others and that can be tough. Next Goal Wins tells the story of the ‘worst football team in the world’, the national football team of American Samoa (and yes, this is proper footie not American football, despite being in an US territory) and their struggle to win even a single game. If you’re thinking at this point that sport in general and football in particular are not your bag, fear not, this film will appeal to everyone, even those odd boys who don’t like sport.
Back in 2001 the American Samoa national association football team made the Guinness book of records – for all the wrong reasons. They suffered the worst defeat in international football history by losing to the Australian national team by a staggering 31-0. When film makers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison catch up with the team ten years later, they are still reeling from the indignity of that defeat while they languish at the bottom of the world football rankings.
American Samoa is a lush tropical gem set in the south Pacific ocean, and is made to look especially lovely here. But what is a hell in paradise for the Samoan footballers, is a perfect opportunity for Brett and Jamison. Not only can things only get better, but they are now the ultimate Davids for whom the rest of the world is a Goliath waiting to be humbled by a well aimed football. They may never beat Australia, but they can and do display enough courage and heart to place them alongside the footballing gods.
The team’s first coach is a loud voiced Samoan living in the US who points to his head while yelling at the boys, “It’s all in here.” Indeed, Next Goal Wins is a powerful testament to the ability of overcoming ones self-imposed limitations. They achieve this with the help of new hardcore US-based Dutch coach Thomas Rongen who can shout even louder than the previous guy. It turns out that he is not quite as abrasive as it first appears and a very touching relationship builds up between Rongen and the team.
Unlike so many sporting films, they do not aim for total victory but rather just a measure of success and a smidgeon of self belief. The modesty of the team’s ambitions makes the film easy to relate to. The players feel like the sorts you might meet at your average local club, but with added stories. There is Nicky Salapu who played in the 2001 defeat and wears the indignity like the mark of Cain. Rawlston Masaniai grew up in California with a Samoan mum, he once played in the German league and is drafted in to beef up the team, and uses his time on the island to reconnect with his roots.
Possibly the most ususual of all is Jaiyah “Johnny” Saelua who is of the Samoan third gender, known as Fa’afafine. With a very feminine manner, flicking her hair and as she puts it “running like a girl”, Johnny is the first third gender person to compete in the men’s FIFA World Cup qualifier. It is remarkable how the rest of the team – presumably in all other respects pretty blokey blokes – are so blasé about Johnny. Overall, the glimpse into Samoan culture is fascinating. Many people say the whole island is like a family and that is easy to agree with.
Of course, football has to be played and the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup are the big obstacle. It would be wrong to tell you the outcome of the games, but suffice to say they give it their all and feel better for it. As Rongen puts it, this is sport “as pure as it can get”. So pure that it’s impossible not to be moved.
Next Goal Wins is released in the UK on Friday 9th May, 2014.