Meeting Thomas Rongen and Jaiyah Saelua after having watched their film Next Goal Wins was a strange experience. Fun and rewarding too, but strange nonetheless, perhaps because the inspiring documentary film is so emotionally immersive that I felt like I already knew them. For those who haven’t seen the film yet (it’s the one film you need to see this year), let me introduce them.
Thomas Rongen is the proud Dutch football coach, who after plying his trade successfully in the MLS embarks on the ultimate coaching challenge – coaching the world’s worst international football team – American Samoa. Loud, sweary and intensely passionate about the beautiful game he is able to reverse the misfortunes of an eternally winless side languishing at the bottom of the FIFA rankings. Jaiyah Saelua is also an inspirational character. A member of the Samoan third gender Fa’afafine, Saelua is the first transgender player to start a FIFA world cup qualifier and throughout the film proves that she is more than just a pretty face, providing some of the best footballing moments.
After some extremely nervous and excitable babbling about how much I enjoyed the film, the interview commences. ‘After the tournament I went back to the University of Hawaii, where I had been dismissed from school because I had missed that semester for the tournament and my letter of appeal got denied. I have to pay a certain percentage of my student loans in order to get back into school, so I found a job, have been working to pay that off, then I quit my job so I can have the spring of this year available to promote the film,” Saelua tells me.
I can’t help but let out a sigh of shock. Rongen nods in agreement. The idea of somebody being kicked out of school for representing their country is preposterous, especially the star of the show! ‘In my letter of appeal I wrote that I missed the semester because I was representing American Samoa in the world cup qualifiers and the South Pacific games. And the Dean said that’s not a good enough reason.” The dismissal further demonstrates how much the American Samoa players are willing to sacrifice for their love of football. After filming, Rongen took up a role at MLS side Toronto FC as academy director, a dramatic step up.
Having beaten the win drought that once rendered American Samoa ‘the worst team in the world’ I’m curious as to the effect the modest success has had on the island and local interest in football. ‘The challenge is to keep the interest in the youth, because the interest is there now after the tournament – [it’s] tripled’ Saelua says. ‘The programmes that they have, means more people are getting involved now but the challenge is to keep them involved and interested in the sport so they want to grow as players. It’s not a promising sport in American Samoa because there are no opportunities for them to further a career. For instance, college scholarships – if parents don’t see that the opportunities are there to make a good living then they will push them towards American football or push them to the military, so that they have the opportunity to leave and then come back to their families.” Despite the ongoing challenge to recruit more to the sport, the film has put American Samoa on the map and more importantly, opened up Samoan culture to a wider audience.
Screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, the film has garnered some impressive support. ‘Tim Cahill of the New York Red Bulls – he came to the premiere at Tribeca New York City! He congratulated us and tweeted a lot about the film and about being a proud Samoan, coming from a culture that’s so accepting, strong-willed! He followed me on twitter and Instagram also!’ Saelua beams.’ Chelsea legend Graeme Le Saux has also championed the documentary. ‘We did a special screening yesterday at the FA and Graeme was the one who hosted it and was the Q&A guy, obviously he can relate to this because he went through the same homophobic, crazy, taboo shit that we still see in macho football in the west, so he was encouraging and supportive,’ explains Rongen. It’s comforting to hear how passionately Rongen speaks about inclusivity and equality. The film itself encapsulates this attitude and really makes you think. If a team of Samoan warriors (a haka following each match) can accept Jaiyah as a player, a team mate and an equal, there is no reason why the cave-man like prejudices of western football shouldn’t follow suit. Thomas admits that FIFA has perhaps turned a corner in this respect, but concedes so much more could be done to make football more equal and inclusive. Sadly we’ve got a long way to go.
Talk turns to the future. ‘I delayed my transition, so that I can play one more time for the national team. Next year will be my final season playing on the national level – but I’m not going to give up soccer for good. I can’t, I love the sport too much. But on the national level I am thinking of giving it up so I can focus on my transition – then eventually go back and help the association with development and fully gain a title there so I can travel and advocate within the Pacific region and eventually wherever I need to advocate,’ Saelua says, interrupted by Rogen who asks about her involvement in Russia 2018. ‘Then I’ll wait another four years for my transition. If we keep doing well, I’ll just die a man!’ Rongen has plans to further promote the film and then hopefully go back and coach the team again in the future, hopefully raising funds and starting a foundation for future development on the way.
Before the interview finishes – and Rongen calls me delirious on my suggestion that West Brom might win the Premier League in a few years – I grab the chance to get their world cup predictions. Jaiyah is tipping Portugal due to a soft spot for a certain bronzed superstar and of course Thomas Rongen is backing the ‘dutchies’ to continue their takeover of the world!
NEXT GOAL WINS is out on 7 May (nationwide previews) and 9 May (select cinemas). Read Davey’s review here