An utterly charming, funny and exhilarating film about football, community and tolerance, Next Goal Wins is the perfect World Cup warm up.
Win/Win by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Reflecting on a particularly notorious incident in Selhurst Park in 1995, French footballer Eric Cantona once said that “you can feel very quickly a prisoner of your past. Of your memories.”. For a small pacific island with a population of 55,000 people, this was the prevailing sentiment following the worst night in their sporting history and also permeates Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s wonderful film. Exploring the omnipresent and palpable sporting shame felt by this proud community, the filmmakers highlight the catalyst and curse effect of the past on the present. Next Goal Wins is a winning documentary that skips past the cynical challenges of modern football and champions the virtues that made the ‘beautiful game’, as beautiful as it should be.
In 2001, American Samoa suffered a world record defeat in International football, losing 31-0 to Australia. A decade later, the tiny pacific island languish at the bottom of FIFA’s World rankings having lost every competitive game they have ever played. In spite of this, the team face the seemingly insurmountable task of embarking on a qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Seeking assistance from the American Football Federation, the islanders are assigned veteran Dutch coach Thomas Rongen on loan in order to achieve the impossible, and win a game.
Highlighting the remarkable, and indelible impression the defeat at the hands of the Socceroos left on the psyche of American Samoan’s, Next Goal Wins opens with a clever and concise montage of each and every calamitous goal. Recounting the night in detail, visibly tormented goalkeeper Nicky Salapu – and the only player to remain involved with the side – speaks of his own personal nightmares as well as the opportunity to rectify the embarrassment of the night. His unwavering conviction that American Samoa can achieve the impossible, is the perfect bookend to a film that exudes passion and determination from start to finish. An extremely well structured documentary, the opening half of the film introduces each of the key players with individual backstory and recollections of the fateful night. The wit and humility of the squad is so enjoyable that you feel like you haven’t had enough time with them when the credits roll.
On the eve of the qualification process, the teams fortunes are boosted with the introduction of Dutch coach Thomas Rongen. A grizzled and confident task master, he has a formidable and comforting onscreen presence and much of the unintentional and genuinely funny moments of the film are witnessing his realisation of the task ahead of him. It is through Rongen’s introduction that centre back Jaiyah Saelua comes to the fore. Jaiyah, born Johnny, is fa’afafine, Samoa’s third gender, and under Rongen’s guidance becomes the defensive backbone of the team as well as becoming the first transsexual player to play in a FIFA recognised competition. Fearless and unrelenting in her defensive duties, Jaiyah’s involvement with the team, and her acceptance in Samoan culture is truly uplifting.
The overwhelming likeability of all concerned means that you will be completely invested in the qualifiers when they finally roll around – I found myself sighing, gasping and cheering throughout.. The brisk pacing of the film led to one minor quibble – I wanted more. Several team members are introduced but never explored to any great extent because the filmmakers choose to gravitate around Rongen. As much as I enjoyed the Dutchman’s back story, I found it to be a slightly unsatisfying narrative detour where there were other American Samoan players I wanted to know more about.
Extolling the virtues of pride, defiance and community, Next Goal Wins is a charming and exhilarating documentary. It’s a glowing endorsement for the integral part sport plays in society; and a sad indictment on the commerciality and cynicism that is pervasive in modern football. Beautifully shot and consistently funny, Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s film has it’s heart in the right place, and for the warrior footballers of American Samoa, that’s exactly the kind of film that they deserved.
Next Goal Wins is released on 9th May 2014 in the UK