Starring: Thomas Rongen, Jaiyah Saelua, Nicky Salapu
In 2001 the national football team of American Samoa lose 31-0 to Australia, it is the biggest defeat in international football history and cements the humiliation felt by a team that has lost every competitive football match they have played and is ranked at the very bottom of the Fifa world rankings. As they prepare for their initial qualification games for the 2014 Fifa Would Cup, the American Samoa Football Federation advertise the position of head coach of their nation team, to which the response is only one applicant: Dutch-born American-based coach Thomas Rongen. After describing what he sees as the “worst standard of football he has ever seen”, Rongen faces the impossible task of coaching the official worst football team in the world to get through their four World Cup qualifying games.
Though that story may sound like proper Ray of the Rovers cheesy underdog story stuff, Next Goal Wins is yet another example of the emotional power and engagement that only documentaries can produce. If this story were completely copied fact by fact and retold with actors it would be almost impossible to recreate the emotional power and engagement that this film provides. Of course I am not naive, and I know that documentary film makers often have hours of footage they can edit to their heart’s content, but Mike Brett & Steve Jamison have crafted together a documentary that is a truly emotionally engaging documentary.
Though a sports documentary, Next Goal Wins is a film with such genuine heart and a great human story at its centre that, just like all the best sports documentaries (Senna being a recent example) it is a film that will not only genuinely enrapture fans of the sport, but even those who hate football.
Next Goal Wins is very much a documentary that focuses on the characters at the centre of its narrative. Though of course every player in the team is not focussed on due to the obvious time constraints, the players that are focused on within the narrative all emerge as sympathetic characters of complete integrity. Their deep sense of patriotism and pride, as well as their never-give-up attitude (despite playing for a team who are officially the worst national team in the world) is compelling and emotionally engaging viewing. They are not paid to play for their country or indeed are professional sportsman; they all have regular jobs (some more than one) and play for their country through sheer passion and loyalty to their country and one another. When one player talks about a recent tsunami that struck the island and took many lives, it is impossible not to be moved.
The two characters that really stand out are goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, who originally retired before the games featured in the film and is still haunted by being known as the goalkeeper for the worst team in the world that lost 31-0 and Jaiyah Saelua, who is a ‘fa’afafine’ (a third gender in Samoan culture that is both masculine and feminine). Through interviews with these individuals and footage of them it is impossible not to like them and cheer for them when watching them on the football field.
Coach Thomas Rongen, who takes over after the teams humiliating heavy defeats at a five game tournament starts off as an eccentric but tough character. Once again, if this were fiction his character would seem painfully clichéd, but as we learn more about his character and his tragic past he emerges with total sympathy and integrity, while still being eccentric and tough. The bond Rongen forms with his players is engaging viewing and when the team play their three initial Fifa World Cup qualifying games (I of course will not spoil what happens) it proves to be deeply compelling, emotionally engaging and genuinely edge of the seat viewing. Next Goal Wins is yet another example of the raw and unique power of documentary films that is so often impossible to recreate, and proves that it is still a vitally important genre in this day and age of huge budgets and CGI.
Though a sports documentary, Next Goal Wins has such a powerful and emotionally engaging human story at its centre that even the most ardent hater of all things sport will still be unable to stop themselves from cheering for the film’s protagonists. This is a wonderful documentary and a genuinely heart warming story that should be seen by all.