There are moments in Next Goal Wins that are so exquisitely perfect, so emotionally charged and so monumentally joyous – that you could be forgiven for thinking that this so-called documentary is in fact a result of Hollywood at its ‘feel good’ finest. A quick consultation with the sporting history books however confirms the extraordinary plight of the American Samoa national football team and shows that in this instance, truth well and truly upstages fiction.
The story begins at rock bottom. After succumbing to the biggest defeat in international football history (31 – 0 to Australia), the team are firmly rooted to the bottom of the FIFA world rankings and yet to win a game. Embarrassing defeats in the Pacific Games only reaffirm their status as ‘the worst football team in the world’ and the American Samoa football association place an advert with FIFA seeking help. Step up Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, the larger than life answer to their coaching prayers. What follows is an equally funny, poignant and inspiring emotional rollercoaster that will make even the most stubborn football sceptics open their hearts to the beautiful game for ninety minutes.
A window to a culture we’re rarely presented with, Next Goal Wins showcases football in its purest form. A world away from the big money, corporate game, the players make no money from the sport and juggle multiple jobs on top of the organized regime implemented by their new coach. Players are drafted in to make up numbers and everyone is playing solely for their love of the sport. Despite their lack of quality, (humorously portrayed but never in a belittling manor) their enthusiasm and passion makes them the ultimate underdogs. As well as this purity, the exploration of their spirituality and strife throughout the film takes the story past merely a sports film and instead a celebration of determination and overcoming the odds. Throughout the film, characters embody this. Goalkeeper Nicky Salupa, the only player remaining from the Australia defeat, constantly itching for a rematch claims he would die a happy man if he could win just one game. You believe him.
The spotlight also falls on another underdog, Jaiya Saelua – the first transgender player to play in a world cup qualifier. Handed her first ever start, (an honour she had been waiting for from the bench for ten years) she provides some of the best footballing moments in the entire film and is a testament to acceptance and equality in the game (FIFA take note.) Thomas Rongen is also a fantastic presence throughout. His unbridled passion, enthusiastic swearing and hysterical frustration make for some of the funniest and most heart-warming moments in the film.
Next Goal Wins is unique. It’s a rare occurrence when so many factors align to make as remarkable a story as seen with the American Samoa football team. To their credit, Mike Brett and Steve Jamison have captured it perfectly. They have documented not just an underdog story in its truest, purest sense but a celebration of the human spirit and a showcase of why the beautiful game is just that – beautiful. Next Goal Wins will have you laughing, crying and applauding (during and after.) If you see one film this year, make it this one.
NEXT GOAL WINS is released on 7 May (nationwide previews) and 9 May (select cinemas)