As the Premier League stands are filled for the last time this season, every opportunity will be sponsored to within an inch of its life and every badly haircutted, grossly overpaid scoundrel will be idolised zealously. A club backed by billionaires will probably get glory, the ref will be harangued and managers will be sacked. Next Goal Wins is the perfect, life-affirming antidote to the madness. Not that the madness has no place, but the documentary beautifully captures a spirit easily forgotten, which gives sport its life.
On 11 April 2001, American Samoa lost by a world record 31-0 to Australia. Or was it 32-0? For most people, it’s a bright piece of sporting trivia, but for the amateurs composing of the American Samoan team, it’s a humiliating burden they’ve had to endure. Having never won a game, they sit bottom of the FIFA rankings as a bit of an international joke. Numerous film makers have requested to document the team but all have been rejected until Mike Brett and Steve Jamison got involved, celebrating the fact that the team continue to compete despite all their defeats. Brett and Jamison embrace the deeply human and spiritual side of the nation and the team, extracting the essence of what makes this gorgeous island so special.
The team request help from the US Soccer Federation, desperate for any professional coach to give them a hand. They receive one application, hardened Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen who can boast a long running MLS career and just as importantly, embraces the island and the people. He’s a charismatic character and in the three week period before American Samoa must begin their World Cup Qualification campaign, he installs some professionalism and belief into the team and even finds a couple Americans with American Samoan ancestry to come over and give the team a boost. Having lost his teenage daughter several years ago, he understands struggle and the importance of living in the moment and all of that passion is so clearly apparent. Yet at no moment does it feel like a film about the US coming over to help the small islanders. Part of Brett and Jamison’s genius lies in the fact that it is always about American Samoa and their culture. Everything from their haka to their prayers seeps of beauty and pride, cast against the most majestic of unspoiled lands.
There are so many smaller stories weaving around the underdog narrative. These are players who for all their supposed lack of professionalism, train at 5am, work day jobs or study and then come back at 5pm for more training. The team’s roster includes Jaiyah Saelua, a defender who becomes the first transgender player to compete in the men’s FIFA World Cup. Saelua belongs to the island’s ‘third gender’ (fa’afafine) and is treated as any other team mate, producing more than her share of big tackles, forcing her way into the team. It’s remarkable and inspiring how American Samoa can be such a microcosm for tolerance when the rest of the world struggles. Then there’s the story of the team’s goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, a man who has to live with being known as the keeper who conceded 31 goals. Sleepless nights haunt him but he still played on afterwards, even coming out of retirement for Rongen in an attempt to put daemons to rest. It’s a remarkable, uplifting spirit which epitomises the team. The actual football carries a genuine intensity because of how much we are made to understand about the players and the island. The Cook Islands and Tonga have never produced nerves in the neutral quite like this.
Its 97 minute running time absolutely flies by and I could easily have spent another hour in the company of these people and their land. This is one of those sporting documentaries which genuinely transcends an interest in the subject matter. Not only is it a wonderful underdog story but it carries an overwhelming happiness and illuminates a culture with so much colour and spirit.
Next Goal Wins is out now in the UK and US. Running time 97 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).
Review by David Rank