Arts & Events

New: Next Goal Wins: And So Does the Audience

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Tuesday April 22, 2014 - 10:20:00 PM

Opens April 25 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco

Set on the South Pacific island of American Samoa, Next Goal Wins introduces us to the survivors of a soccer match that ranks among the most misbegotten contests in the history of the sport. In 2001, the team from American Samoa went head-to-head with the Australia soccer squad in a World Cup Competition match and suffered a loss of 31 to 0—the worst defeat in the history of professional soccer. With the 2014 World Cup approaching, the team decides to take a shot at redemption. Can they overcome their humiliating reputation as "the World's Worst Soccer Team"? Yes, they can—with an improbable assist from an irrepressible, white-haired Dutchman. 


To be clear: Next Goal Wins (a big hit at the 13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival) is not a slam-bang grunt-fest about the world of competitive soccer. It's something milder, sweeter and more beguiling. Instead of bulldozing the audience, the film starts out as a simple and undemanding tale—as casual and referential as someone's home movie. Set on the South Pacific island of American Samoa, the film introduces us to the survivors of a famously disastrous soccer match—one that ranks among the most memorably misbegotten contests in the history of the sport. 

In 2001, the team from American Samoa went head-to-head with the Australia soccer squad in a World Cup Competition match and got knocked on their duffs. They suffered a loss of 31 to 0—the worst defeat in the history of professional soccer. 

Since that dark day, the Samoans managed to score only twice in 17 years, losing every game they played. But with the 2014 World Cup approaching, the team decides to undertake an improbable shot at an impossible goal. Can they overcome their humiliating reputation as the "World's Worst Soccer Team"? 

Next Goal Wins was independently produced by two die-hard British soccer-fans/filmmakers who put their own money on the line, despite the long-shot odds that this team would be able to turn their lead feet into gold. 

As it turned out, the gamble paid off. Still, the film gets off to a slow start with a spate of islander interviews that are filled with coaching clichés, hackneyed positive-thinking preachments, and perhaps a bit too much Biblical psychobabble. 

This is an island where ancient Samoan traditions (which still survive in the form of warrior songs, fierce Hakka chants and graceful communal dances) comingle with the trappings of imported colonial Christianity. (During services filmed in a local church, the Samoan flag and Old Glory share equal billing on opposite sides of the pulpit.) 

Truth to tell, the players on the Samoan team, while big-hearted and good-natured, are absolute stumblebums on the soccer pitch. It is almost painful to watch. But just when it looks as though this film is going nowhere slow, a rogue agent tumbles into the story like a special-effects meteor falling from the sky. 

The newcomer is a gruff and grizzled, white-haired galoot named Thomas Rongen. A former Dutch footballer (who once played with soccer legends like Britain's George Best), Rongen has been dispatched to the island by the US Soccer Federation in a last-ditch attempt to support the local players in their bid for redemption. 

Fortunately, Rongen (a skinny, wiry cuss with a voice that sounds like John Goodman by way of Tom Waits) has charisma to burn. He not only fires up the team but his hyperkinetic, go-for-broke enthusiasm abruptly shifts the entire movie into overdrive. 

In publicity interviews, the filmmakers admit they initially feared Rongen's unanticipated intrusion was going to poison their film. In fact, Rongen (nicknamed "TR") actually becomes the unexpected star of the documentary. 

The way that Rongen handles his challenge (he has only four weeks to turn his forlorn hopefuls into credible competitors) brilliantly demonstrates some of the traits it takes to become a winning coach. Whereas the team's previous coach mainly provided shouted criticisms and groans of exasperation from the sidelines (and an endless stream of shallow platitudes in the locker room), "TR" offers penetrating, personal and precise instructions to the players. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, he charges onto the field, kicking the ball, mixing it up with the players, teaching them new tricks to build their confidence, and making the key strategic decisions that just might give the team its first real shot at victory. 

One delightful highlight comes when TR shows the young Samoans how to execute a slide tackle on a grassy field that happens to be covered with about 2 inches of rainwater. (Rain is a constant factor in Pago Pago.) You want to see a coach who really throws himself into a practice session? TR is your guy. 

In addition to shoring up the skills and confidence of the local players, TR reaches back to the US mainland and recruits two "ringers." One is Rawlston Masaniai, a US player who has been away from Samoa for 20 years; the other is Ramin Ott, a Samoan player serving in the US military, 6,000 miles away at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Somehow (there must be some rabid soccer fans in the top echelons of the Pentagon), TR manages to arrange a leave of absence for his new striker. 

There are a number of memorable stand-out characters in the home-team lineup. Nikki Salapu, an ex-pat from Seattle, is a haunted athelete saddled with title, "World's Worst Goalkeeper." It was Nikki who stood between the goalposts on that day when the net was peppered with 31 Australian goals. "I want to win a game," Nikki tells the filmmakers. "If we win, I would die as a happy person." 

But the most remarkable team member is Jaiyah Saelua, member of Samoa's so-called "third gender." As a fa'afafine, Jaiyah walks, dresses, dances—and plays soccer—like a woman. Jaiyah even pauses before each game to apply her make-up before charging onto the field. "I'm not male or female, I'm just a soccer player," she insists. "I want to inspire people who are like me to just go out and do what they love to do. Do it to the best of their ability." 

To Jaiyah's surprise, TR promotes her to the starting lineup in the first critical World Cup elimination match against a rival team from Tonga. 

Jaiyah may prance more than she scrambles, but her fearlessness even impressed Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA (Federation International de Football Association), who praised her daring on the soccer pitch during a difficult time when the world of soccer was being rocked with racist chants and stirrings of anti-homosexual bigotry. 

Next Goal Wins is a film that blossoms into a deeper story that offers more than lipstick and slapstick. There are touching human themes about hope and loss. The islanders are still recovering from a deadly tsunami that washed away homes and more than 100 lives in 2009 and Rongen and his wife are still recovering from the loss of their vivacious teenage daughter. 

There is a scene in the film that gets close to the heart of the film. One of the Samoan players invites TR on a hike to the top of the tallest peak on the island. In a gesture that says as much about the heart of this film as it reveals about the nature of the hard-charging and hopeful coach, TR demonstrates that it's sometimes possible to rise "even higher" than the summit.