The American Samoa national football team made headlines in 2001 after conceding a record 31 goals in a World Cup qualifier to Australia. The result has become a permanent fixture in lists of ultimate sporting fails and has haunted the life of American Samoa’s goalkeeper, Nicky Salapu. Next Goal Wins follows the team as they prepare for the 2010 World Cup and work towards bagging their first every victory.
The opening scenes quickly establish that the players are not professional. They work at least one full-time job and practice in the early hours of the morning, returning to practice some more when their shifts are finished. You don’t know whether to admire their unrelenting enthusiasm, or pity their quite blatant lack of proficiency. They are a team diverse in personalities, most notably Jonny ‘Jaiyah’ Saelua, the first transgender player to compete in a men’s World Cup qualifier.
The first third of the film covers the full spectrum of comedy. From awkward scenes of bewildered players trying to understand tactics, to sections of hilarious, almost slapstick, football inaction. However, this is all captured in the right spirit, with the combination of the players’ own self-awareness and their culturally rooted positive mental attitude, preventing us from feeling we are poking fun.
Despite the best efforts of the team’s native coach (now a Seattle resident) and their dedication to the game, they just don’t seem to improve. That is until a FIFA intervention sees the appointment of Thomas Rongen, a well-respected Dutch non-nonsense coach.
It’s here that the film begins to tone down the comedy and really bring out the cultural and personal motivation behind the team’s love of football. It achieves this without getting gushy and manages to avoid many sports documentary clichés. This is largely down to the people at the heart of it. We’re not simply rooting for a team to win their first game; we’re rooting for a group of genuinely wonderful people who want nothing more than to make their country proud.
Their past performances becomes almost a foot-note at this point, something amplified by the gradual softening of Rongen as he starts to open up about his own life and his own motivation for being there, leading to some incredibly poignant and touching moments.
Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, the climax of the film had many audience members welling up. You’ll have to see the film to discover whether these tears were of laughter, joy or despair or a combination of all three.
Next Goal Wins is a classic underdog story, but it is entirely original. It is as satisfyingly comedic and quirky as it is sentimental and moving. The team’s emotional journey is a joy to be on and the conclusion is hugely rewarding.