The heart wrenching redemption story of American-Samoa’s international football team- Next Goal Wins follows the team as they try to regain their self-respect and competitive streak after losing 31-0 to Australia. The surprisingly emotional journey shows the worlds’ lowest ranked team score their first ever goal, win their first ever game and progress to new heights. Perfect for football fans and non-football fans alike, Next Goal Wins is an exemplary ‘feel good film’.
Though Next Goal Wins is essentially a documentary it breaks the documentary mould in that it is impressive on a visual level as well as in its content.
To begin with things seem as bleak as can be- the team remain haunted by their gargantuan loss to Australia in 2001 and their coach fails to connect with the team. Notably he refers to the teams’ trans-gender player (the first trans-gender player ever to compete in a men’s FIFA World Cup Qualifier,) as ‘Johnny’, despite the fact the team and everyone else call her Jaiyah and this arguably small transgression aptly illustrates his failure to motivate a squad in desperate need of positivity and progress. Following a promise from FIFA to help advance American Samoa as a footballing nation, Thomas Rongen (the sole applicant for the position,) arrives having spent most of his footballing career in the USA. His steely determination and experience alongside a genuine interest in American Samoan culture sees whole-heartedly accepted among the islanders as he gets the team back on their feet.
All the players work at least one day job while also training twice a day with the football squad.
Though Next Goal Wins is essentially a documentary it breaks the documentary mould in that it is impressive on a visual level as well as in its content. American Samoa’s beauty is displayed to its full when the chance is afforded and sections based on training sessions/matches/social occasions are shot with a subtle attention to detail that helps the whole feature pull together well. As a result the film doesn’t suffer from feeling slow paced or amateurish as many documentaries can.
The film is also an interesting insight into the culture of Pacific islanders, which is an accepting, optimistic and deeply religious one. American Samoa is a country that has to be perpetually ready for adverse weather conditions and even natural disaster, a memorable section of the film recalls an occasion when much of the island suffered a devastating flood, the following day the team showed their spirit and trained anyway, despite the fact there was no grass left on their playing field. Weather is not the only worry though, idyllic as American Samoa is most young American Samoans struggle to gain employment in their own country and as a result a high percentage of young men go into the US military. One of the players the film focuses on is a soldier himself and in an amazingly self-sacrificing move, takes his whole annual leave to help the team in their World Cup qualification campaign. All the players work at least one day job while also training twice a day with the football squad and at times it seems their faith is what pushes them to train and work so hard. What makes this insight still more interesting is seeing coach, Rongen, immersed in it. The audience watch him learn about the American Samoan way of life and explore a new country while simultaneously watching the team benefit from his experience as a coach.
It is the multi-layered effect of Next Goal Wins that makes it such a triumph. On the one hand it is a truly heart-warming redemption story for an initially, inept football team and on the other it is an amazing insight into a country with a unique culture, a beautiful landscape and its own very tough, set of problems.
By George Storr