Directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison
United Kingdom, 2014
For sports fans, there’s nothing more hopeless than cheering for a perennial loser. Die-hard supporters of the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, and Kansas City Royals, among other notoriously bad franchises, know the agony of defeat all too well. But they’ve got nothing on the people of American Samoa.
The soccer team that represents this small Pacific Island nation is all kinds of awful. In a 2002 World Cup qualifying match, American Samoa lost to Australia 31-0—the worst margin of defeat in the history of the event. Prior to the events depicted in the documentary Next Goal Wins, they’d only won one international match. Ever. That was all the way back in 1983, which meant they were going on 30 years of nothing but losing when directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s cameras started rolling.
Heading into 2014 World Cup qualifying, American Samoa soccer was still rudderless. They were a rather tightly knit crew, but the game wasn’t their biggest priority in life, and understandably, they came up a little short in the confidence department. Enter Thomas Rongen—an eccentric Dutchman who was the only person crazy enough to apply for the American Samoan national team’s head coaching vacancy.
He has a tough time assimilating at first; an avowed atheist, Rongen doesn’t quite understand American Samoan religious traditions or why they take precedent over practice. This leads to a major blowup between him and American Samoa soccer executives. The film also paints him as a stubborn ass, but he’s so much deeper than such a simple characterization would allow. He shares his tragic story—of losing a daughter in a car crash—with the audience and slowly comes to understand these people and this culture. It’s an arc rarely found in non-fiction filmmaking, but one that helps this film rise above its familiar athletic underdog formula.
Next Goal Wins‘ other big “character” is Jonny “Jayieh” Saelua, a defender for the American Samoan team who is also FIFA’s first transgender player. Jayieh is a sweet soul and a real charmer—maybe not the most talented player on the team, but one who absolutely earns playing time. It’s nice to see the filmmakers give her story its fair shake, but it also occasionally feels awkwardly shoehorned into an otherwise simply told sports story. Social commentary and athletics absolutely belong in conversation together, but Brett and Jamison don’t exactly nail the landing in their attempt to marry the two.
These asides excepted, Next Goal Wins is an inspiring, smartly executed, and immensely watchable documentary. It follows well-worn conventions, but those conventions are well-worn for a reason. Underdogs don’t come more “underdoggy” than American Samoan soccer, and seeing them rise up and fight for victory is intoxicating.
– John Gilpatrick