Mike Brett and Steve Jamison's documentary Next Goal Wins follows Thomas Rongen, a Dutch soccer coach who is hired to lead the national team for American Samoa, a famously pitiful outfit that spent nearly two decades at the bottom of FIFA's international rankings.
This is a fascinating, spirited and in many ways uplifting look at the lower levels of international football. A love of the game probably isn't required to enjoy it as its as much about the people and honest endeavour as anything else.
The doc follows the American Samoa international football (or soccer if you insist) team over a relatively short space of time. Early footage shows them getting walloped 31-0 by Australia and we hook up with them whilst they are still officially ranked as the worst team in the international game. The team are heading into a World Cup qualifying campaign - Can they qualify? Can they win a game? Can they even score a goal?
An eclectic group of characters make up the team and the film. There are standout turns from Thomas Rongen the motormouthed Dutch coach, Nicky Salapu the veteran semi-retired keeper who shipped those 31 goals and Jaiyah Saelua the transgender defender breaking new ground. As well as the on pitch antics we get a look at life on this small island nation - the culture, customs, religion etc.
The team have many hurdles to overcome and it's an engrossing story, at turns hilarious and heartbreaking but always entertaining. Perhaps a few big names on BIG salaries from the world of football could have a peek at this. Just a thought but this isn't really about them, it's about a group of non pros playing for the pure pride, passion and love of the game. Refreshing.
This is a documentary that follows 'worst international team in the world' American Samoa as the demoralised squad look to recover from a recent record of 268 goals against and 2 goals for; including a monumental 31-0 thrashing at the hands of mighty Australia.
It could have been a basic plucky no-hopers get organised and learn a valuable lesson in sportsing but for a trio of incredibly strong characters, each with very different but bisecting stories who elevate this to something very special indeed.
You have the goalie who suffered that 31-0 drubbing and who, despite moving away to the US, can't escape either the memory of that game or the bitterness of never having won an international fixture of any sort. He is a tortured man and these is only one possible salvation that will bring about an easing of his Sisyphean trial.
Then a 'third gender' player who comes to embody the spirit of American Samoa itself, and whose role throughout is treated, by outsiders and locals alike, with a dignity and grace that is as humbling as it is surprising. His/hers is not a story of triumph over intolerance but a sweet story of contentment with one's place in the world; and eventually in the team.
And anchoring the documentary there's the new outsider coach, a lunatic Dutchman, on appearances more mad old pirate than coach, who reveals a deep lingering sadness, a revelation that surprises him as much as it does his team and us the viewer; who puts steel into his players boots at the same time as molding their underdog courage into something that transcends notions of success and triumph.
This is a film that opens the window to why sports can mean so much more than entertainment both for player and for spectator. I spent much of the final third of the movie in floods of tears - even when the story looks to be going a certain way, you're reminded that this is real and a reflection of sporting stories played out all around the globe on scruffy fields weekend in and weekend out.
It is a magnificent charting of the way in which characters and determination sometimes come together to create real magic. Where flaws are amplified but unexpectedly suited to the moment and therein lies proof of the deep satisfaction of allowing our shortcomings to be where the real victories live.
Imagine being a part of something that was almost impossible and insurmountable to achieve anything other than saving face. Being right at the bottom of the barrel and losing heavily every time you participated. It would be very soul destroying. But this is only football, its not life or death i hear you cry. Maybe so, However if i have ever seen a movie about successfully overcoming adversity then this may just be the most spirited of them all..without overlapping into mawkishness or over egging a plight with true tragedy. Rongen,the new coach who is licking his own emotional wounds, becomes the film’s motivational appointee, who embraces his team and their culture, just as the movie itself does. One of the film’s intriguing characters—and one of Coach Rongen’s, as well—is Jaiyah, a courageous player who can be amiably transgendered in a country that actually accepts and celebrates the lifestyle. Her feminine ways are practically counterintuitive to a movie of this ilk but are right at home in this one. Directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s sports doc joins the American Samoa football team as they approach their qualification campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. To say they are underdogs is an understatement. Having never won a game(yes, thats right NEVER won a game in 2 decades) and once thumped 31-0 by Australia. Next Goal Wins is very hard to be cynical with but very easy to name one of the better films to grace 2014 so far. It is a touch manipulative at times though the interpersonal stories all feel very weighty and have a humility and unpretentious approach to them. So its not really about the winning and losing, its not really about the taking part either. The film tries to elevate somewhere else..to a world where all that really matters is the experience of sharing. It does not matter how close to perfection one may get, this is a winner for the loser in all of us.