Review: Next Goal Wins

Next Goal Wins


American Samoa are the worst team in FIFA. Can they change that?

American Samoa are the worst team in FIFA. Can they change that?

Sport has always been wrapped up in many different concepts. Unity, nationality and pride come to mind, along with self-esteem, the breaking of cultural barriers and the simple driving force of ambition. For the documentary genre, approaching a topic of sporting interest nearly always involves one or all of these themes, but only rarely does everything come together flawlessly. Even more so for a film focusing on a team sport, like football. In my review of last year’s Rush, I mentioned that the best kind of sports film is one that is not even really about a sport, but about something else. Such things were on my mind as I gazed upon this offering. Next Goal Wins, from British directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, makes the attempt, at the back end of the FIFA world rankings.

The national team of American Samoa are a completely amateur organisation, who achieved an undesired level of fame when they were on the wrong end of a record hiding, 31-0, at the hands of Australia in 2001. A decade on and little has changed, with the team continuing an epic losing streak of 17 years. After another disastrous showing at the 2011 Pacific Games their leadership decide change is needed, hiring Dutch coach Thomas Rongen to take the team into the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers. Featuring new ex-pat players, the first transgender starter in international football and even US military personnel, American Samoa prepare for a battle where just scoring once would be considered a victory.

More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. My shorter, non-spoiler, review, is available on The Write Club.

Next Goal Wins is the ultimate underdog story really. These guys, the football players of American Samoa, are the kind of people who hold multiple jobs to make ends meet (and have to schedule their training centres around them), clean up their own field days after a tsunami wrecked large parts of their home and keep pulling on the shirt year after year, thrashing after thrashing. And it’s all for the love of the game, and for the love of their country. That is the kind of set-up for a documentary that I can certainly get behind. The underdog story is a well done one, but it’s a classic for a reason.

If there’s one thing you can take away from Next Goal Wins, it’s the immense feeling of pride, which almost radiates off the screen whenever you see a member of this football team take the field. It’s the great unifying feeling of sport, this classic contest of skill and physique, and the investigation of it draws you into Next Goal Wins right from the off. American Samoa might be the worst nation in the world at football, but they still have their self-respect. In fact, the creators of this documentary were the last in a line of people interested, the rest turned down for fear of a film that would make a mockery of the team and the nation. They might be losers, but they hold their heads up. When an amateurish sports psychologist is brought in to talk to the team early on in the film, his incoherent ramblings simply cause the players embarrassment. They don’t need the kind of encouragement that compares them to a blind man. When their FA head says on camera that they were finally ready to acknowledge they “needed help” before hiring Rongen with the aid of US Soccer, there is a faint trace of mortification behind his words. They already have enough people treating them like a “And now, in lighter news…” story. Everything, all of the negative interest and embarrassment, comes back to that horrible day in 2001, depicted in the opening titles.

That start is heartbreaking, and sets the tone for much of what follows. Australia’s 31 goals are all shown one after the other in rapid succession, interrupted only by newspaper headlines joking about the American Samoans and their goalkeeper Nicky Salapu. For the world media he’s a figure of almost good-natured mockery. For Salapu himself, the events of that day are a terrible scar on his life, which he is unable to move past easily. It’s not even justified: even a cursory glance at what occurred that day, with Australia scoring nearly all their goals from unacceptably close range, will tell you that it was the defence that should have been castigated, not Salapu.

But it doesn’t really matter to him. Haunted is the term that I was use for Salapu, who keeps coming out of retirement to play for his nation just for the slim chance that he might find any kind of closure with some form of victory. He screams to the heavens following the 31-0, utterly dejected and frustrated, and things never seem to be getting any better. He returns to his adopted home in Seattle and tries to ignore what happened, but it gnaws away at him. That sense of seeking a certain kind of redemption is very powerful, coming from such a soft spoken man. Of all the members of the American Samoa squad, Salapu is the one that needs the victory the most, even if it is just scoring a goal. He’s like an abused spouse who keeps coming back.

He’s the first of several specific individuals Next Goal Wins chooses to place a spotlight on, all of whom have something to prove, and all of whom will have a great interest to the audience. Perhaps the most notable is Jaiyah ”Johnny”  Saelua, a Samoan “Fa’afafine”, born a man but now embodying characteristics of both genders. This third gender is an openly accepted part of the Pacific islands culture, streaks ahead of the west in terms of tolerance, and Jaiyah’s exploits and time on camera provide one of the most unique perspectives of the game you are ever likely to find. She faces into the challenge of both a World Cup qualifier and being a representative for her sex, the first openly transgender person to be placed in the starting line-up of such a competition. But she’s remarkably upbeat and positive about the whole thing, barely ever showing any sign of strain or pressure (the positive environment of the islands is probably something to do with that). Like the others, she’s there because she loves the game and loves to compete, even with her (self-acknowledged) lack of innate talent.

Saelua faces no discrimination (on camera at any rate) from any other member of the team, all of whom fail to even bat an eyelid at her presence. The westerner of the set-up is appreciative of her passion, only criticising her lack of technical skill in the game. Right now seems to be a period of greater focus on discrimination within the game of football, and we could all do worse than look towards American Samoa for an example of how to actually approach the problem: by not treating it like a problem at all.

Jaiyah ”Johnny” Saelua, the first openly transgender starter in international football.

Jaiyah ”Johnny” Saelua, the first openly transgender starter in international football.

Then there’s Ramin Ott, a member of the US military brought back to play for the team as a ringer. Ott is an example of how a large proportion of the islands young manage to get away from the mass unemployment and lack of prospects: by signing up with Uncle Sam, the nation itself being a “unincorporated territory” of the United States, similar in status to Puerto Rico. Ott doesn’t seem to be the atypical American grunt and barely passes any comment on his “day job” other than to note the opportunity it gave him to play more football abroad, notably in South Korea. Such experience stands to the new look American Samoa squad well and also allows a further opportunity to see the attachment that these ex-pats have to their homeland: Ott leaves behind a heavily pregnant wife and child, using up all of his annual leave in the process, to take part in the World Cup qualifiers. Another ex-pat, having left American Samoa as a child and gone on to play football professionally elsewhere, returns home at Rongen’s urging to honour his parents and grandparents, the very essence of how things like the “granny rule” are supposed to be applied. American Samoa might lack skill, but they have no lack of passion and commitment.

The most important is Rongen though, with the portrait of him being both in-depth and endearing. He’s a million miles away from the previous coach, a native who switched between railing at his players for being unable to follow simple instructions and excusing an 8-0 defeat because the other team “needed nine”. Rongen is the only applicant for the position, anyone else seemingly thinking it is a waste of time. Rongen sees it as a challenge instead, and this attitude pushes American Samoa along the path of becoming competitive with their neighbours. Rongen brings a badly needed professionalism, toughness in the face of difficulties, and an unbending nature in his dealings with the American Samoa FA. When they inform him some of the players will miss training the following day over some suddenly arranged event, he explodes with anger and absolutely unloads a tirade on the unfortunate FA head for the lack of professionalism, a moment that illustrates some of what American Samoa badly needs: a kick in the proverbial behind. The FA head quails and tartly reminds Rongen he doesn’t have to be there, but Rongen is right. American Samoa has acknowledged that it needed help, now it can’t bite the hand that’s feeding it. Things have to change, and Rongen’s uncompromising approach is the way to do it. Omelettes require some cracked eggs after all.

But that would simply make him a tyrant on its own, and Rongen’s success is the fact that he is also exceedingly understanding about the task in front of him. He makes a sincere effort to get to know his players on a very personal level, their lives and their culture, forgoing any prejudices and tailoring his method of training to their requirements: a mixture of western-style practical improvements and simple positive reinforcement. When he goes hiking up American Samoan mountains with one of the local coaches, you can feel his attachment to the place growing, and how it inspires him to lead the team forward to the best of his ability. He might be a journeyman of sorts, but he’s the exact kind of manager that American Samoa need.

And this is all while trying to deal with a tragedy in his past, the death of his teenage daughter in a car accident several years before (she was on her way to a football training session, an oddly touching coincidence for a documentary about this subject). Rongen admits that he has never truly dealt with his grief properly, not shedding a tear since her funeral, but that grief comes to the fore as Next Goal Wins heads towards a powerful climax, Rongen accessing an emotional part of himself as he watches the team – his team – improve and step up to the challenge as he has.

Rongen’s task is to take the team beyond the unmitigated disaster that was their experience at the 2011 Pacific Games. Then, the team left American Samoa full of good cheer, confidence and belief in themselves, with their entire community behind them. You would never think, from that kind of send off, that the team was about to lose five straight games, fail to score, and concede 26 goals in the process. That experience is one that embarrasses the squad, perhaps to a greater extent than normal given the cameras that are present, and even their “Thank you” to the coaches in the aftermath are muted by awkwardness. The problems of the team are many and varied, from a basic deficit of talent to a lack of fitness.

Rongen manages to change this around. It’s amazing what having such a man in charge can do, and what his regime can do. This is a guy who shows American Samoa how to get around a pitch, focusing on a physical game over any kind of fancy technique. He refuses to follow pre-existing starting 11’s, and the fear of being left out certainly seems to motivate many.

By the time the team are heading off to the next challenge, Rongen has managed to create something that appears far better than the squad that left for the Pacific Games. Both of them had confidence and positive opinion of themselves and what they can do, but for the World Cup it seems a bit more genuine, having seen the actual evolution of the squad under Rongen.

Of note is the send off that the team gets the second time around: pretty much exactly the same of the first, full of good cheer, well intentioned prayers and dancing at the airport. I thought perhaps the people of American Samoa had been sucked along on a journey of delusion for the Pacific Games and might not have been so forthcoming with their support this time around, but the exact opposite was the case. These people aren’t deluded about their team or their prospects, but they’re happy and content to cheer them on anyway, in the stadium or at home, regardless of the actual result.  Such an environment is impossible not to root for.

The earlier games show that simple passion isn’t enough for victory, but even with professional coaching, can these players ever really be good enough to mount a challenge to their fellow OFC members? Next Goal Wins is very good at keeping you guessing about that as the OFC’s preliminary World Cup qualifying stage – a round robin tournament between hosts Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and American Samoa, where only the top team advances – gets underway.

Rongen is just the man to lead this squad out of their hopeless losing streak.

Rongen is just the man to lead this squad out of their hopeless losing streak.

When this mini-tournament takes over the narrative, Next Goal Wins does change just a little bit. The camerawork and the edits become a bit more dramatic, the music gets involved a bit more, the whole thing just seems more “Hollywood”. But that’s OK, in my view, because what’s on display is more than worthy of the title of “epic”.

American Samoa start out against Tonga, a team they have never even scored against. Rongen sends them out with a message of self-belief and positivity: if scoring a goal is a victory, then they need to play with an attitude of “next goal wins” (hence the title). They need to fight for it.

The opening half is a tense, nervy affair for the viewer. If Rongen’s methods are a failure, it won’t be long until we find out. But they are not: Almost immediately, probably to the shock of Tonga, American Samoa are playing a more competitive kind of football. A few nice passes, a few crunching tackles, a few good saves from Salapu, even a few speculative efforts on goal: American Samoa have, since the Pacific Games, improved immensely, as the careful cuts and angles of cameras make abundantly clear. But, with my nerves on a knife edge watching, would it be enough?

As the half draws to a close, Ott shoots from very far out (at least 35 yards, maybe more) having found some space, the sort of attacking option taken only by the desperate or overly-confident. The ball sails through the air, all eyes on it. The keeper moves into its path, and it looks like it should be a handy save.

But something goes wrong. The Tonga keeper mishandles the save, and the ball bounces awkwardly up and over him…and into the net.

The explosion of joy, both on the field and in the audiences’ heart, is not to be underestimated here. This is something, so basic in the game, that American Samoa have been striving for so long to get, and here it is: they’ve scored. They’ve taken the lead. They can play football. Sure the goal was a fluke, but they all count.

Half time and Rongen faces the task of getting the American Samoa players to keep their heads. For a team used to thrashings, there is an obvious worry that having scored they’ll consider their job done and ease up. But now they have a chance to actually win a game. All they have to do is keep up what they’re doing, as Rongen reminds them. No stirring speeches are needed at this moment, just a plea to keep going.

And it’s all they need, and there is a visceral feeling of delight in seeing American Samoa come out and immediately begin attacking, swarming over the Tonga defence. Then forward Shalom Luani is sent free into the box, chasing a bouncing ball. He dinks it over the keeper and gets a brutal collision as a result, studs onto shin. It doesn’t matter. The ball is in the net. American Samoa are, astonishingly, two goals in front.

From there, for the viewer, it’s a growing sense of dread, as every subsequent Tonga attack becomes a matter of unrelenting terror. American Samoa have improved, but still lack fitness: with 20 minutes still to play, many of them are already dead on their feet. Salapu keeps making saves, but even he can’t stop Tonga from getting one back, a free header with only a few minutes to play.

At that moment, all you can see is the crushing vista of a draw, or even a defeat on the horizon, but the American Samoa players throw every last reserve of energy into it as injury time comes and wears on. Tonga get their opportunity. Salapu makes a clumsy save, but is then stranded for the rebound, as a Tonga attacker must only slot the ball home without a keeper’s opposition.

The editing here is great. Time seems to stand still, as the ball travels forward, every eye on the stadium looking on, with hearts in mouths. And there is Saelua racing in to clear the ball of the line. She’s been included from the start on the gut instinct of Rongen, who thought her spirit would prove more valuable on the field than off it. She pays him back, with a fine performance, and a match saving intervention at the death, with memories of Henning Berg against Inter Milan running through my head.

American Samoa might lack skill, but there is no denying their spirit.

American Samoa might lack skill, but there is no denying their spirit.

The final whistle goes. The players collapse. The tide has turned. American Samoa have not only scored, but won a game, for the first time in 17 years. It was one of the most cathartic moments I have ever experienced this year in a cinema, watching such a dream come true for these players, who celebrate it in the same way others celebrate a World Cup winning moment. A moment of the purest joy, for both player and spectator, reminding everyone why sport remains such a pivotal part of human existence.

There is a tremendous sense of banishing demons in the aftermath. Rongen takes great pleasure in showing the squad newspaper headlines from around the world noting their victory: they’re international talking points again, for all the right reasons. The BBC even gets the FA head in for an interview, and while there’s more than a small sense of condescension in some of the reports, it is still a remarkable measure of how far American Samoa have come. For Salapu, whom Rongen urged his squad to play the most for, the result is the perfect healer for his inner pain over the 31-0: He’s done something good for the nation.

But now what? There still two games to play, and if Rongen would have had difficulties keeping the team in the right mental zone after scoring, surely it would be even harder to do after winning a game? But no, not this coach and not this team. One win is great, but you’re never in any doubt, just looking at their faces, that they are capable of more.

Next are the Cook Islands. Rongen declares a draw would be satisfactory, and after again taking the lead, that is exactly what occurs with a second half equaliser. Next Goal Wins largely ignores this game in favour of the larger drama before and after, and I see no problem with that.

Next and last is Samoa, a game Rongen describes as a “classico” even if it is a very good-natured rivalry. For American Samoa, the unthinkable is upon them: a win will see them advance to the next qualifying round.

The game is a contest fraught with the most serious kind of nerves, a battle between traditional dominancy and upstart ambition. Every shot, save and tackle gets winces and tuts, and I’m talking about the audience in the cinema. Half time comes and goes, most of the second half, and still the two Samoa’s are locked in stalemate. American Samoa continue their previous good play, and remain firmly in contention.

Then the chance comes. In the dying moments Ott is set free in the box. His shot goes past the Samoan keeper. It’s another frozen in time moment. Then, agonisingly, it bounces back off the post.

For American Samoa, it’s a catastrophic moment. Some players actually throw themselves to the ground. The mental strength disappears momentarily, and it’s all Samoa needs. Rongen can only look on, sputtering, as Samoa race down the field, get into position, and slot the ball between Salapu’s legs for the only goal of the contest.

American Samoa loses the game, and finish the tournament third of four, on goal difference only. The players, as I was, are clearly devastated at seeing their dream, only so newly acquired, drift away from them. Having entered the tournament from a position of wanting only to score, they have now grown so far as to be stunned into shock by this late loss.

Rongen gets them in one last circle, and tells them what we are all thinking: to be proud, prouder than they ever have been before, about what they have achieved as players for their nation. It’s an intensely moving moment, caught half-way between regret and admiration for the viewer.

The directors really bring the beauty of these islands to the screen in a wonderful way.

The directors really bring the beauty of these islands to the screen in a wonderful way.

American Samoa move from a team that could not score and leaked goals, to gaining four points in three games, with an even goal difference. It is, by any metric, a remarkable achievement, and a testament to the work of Rongen. The passion was there, it just needed the right man to direct it. The width of a ball, and American Samoa would have been competing in the second round of qualifying for the World Cup, a feat that would have been considered impossible only a few weeks before. American Samoa always had pride, but now they have recovered a very important part of their dignity lost when they were hammered by Australia.

Next Goal Wins, while dramatising the events to a degree that borders on fantastical, creates a poignant and cathartic documentation of three vital games in this small nation’s history, that will enthrall both those with a passion for the game (I wasn’t the only one ohing and ahing in the theatre) and those who have never kicked a ball in their lives, largely due to the seamless way that the broader narrative is mixed with the previously mentioned portraits of select players. Salapu, Saelua, Ott and Rongen all have their vital parts to play in this drama, and it is a drama that will sweep any viewer along with it.

Brett and Jamison really make you care for these people, their exploits, their failures and their successes. Individual moments will stay long in the memory. Salapu’s despair at the end of the infamous 31-0, the aftermath of the tsunami, learning slide tackles in the rain, Rongen trying (and failing) to recite Samoan war chants, and any moment from the big set-piece retelling of the qualifying campaign all come to mind. Personally, I was very much moved by the continuing support the people of this tiny nation give to their consistently trounced team, always sending them off with good wishes, prayers and a cavalcade of happiness, something so far removed from the western obsession with immediate success that the viewer cannot help but become American Samoa supporters themselves.  They are welcomed back as heroes, and the final departure of Rongen and the ex-pats is an emotionally draining one, they having helped achieve something truly spectacular for this tiny island nation.

If there are flaws they are nothing to cause a serious detriment to the experience. The heart strings are actively targeted for plucking, to an extent that approaches maudlin territory at times. The tsunami section stands out for me in that regard, and it was almost callous the way the narrative focused on the football team’s woes during that time over the islands larger disaster.  Some may certainly feel that the subject is approached with too much positivity from the start, though the directors are mostly just letting this team and its administration speak for themselves. A personal peeve is how the fluke nature of the infamous 31-0 scoreline is not explored at all. Due to a bizarre mistake over passports by the OFC and FIFA, the vast majority of the first team was unable to play, and were replaced in some cases by school kids as young as 15, who played professional Australians (who chose to “run up the score” to an absolutely disgraceful extent, just to prove a point about the lopsided nature of the Confederations competitiveness). I feel the exclusion of this information was a decision made to make American Samoa look weaker than they really were, when the reality is compelling enough: American Samoa’s FA was willing to face a record hiding just to fulfil a fixture, something that should be admired rather than ignored.

The visual side of things is very well carried out. Brett and Jamison stay out of it completely, with brief written narration and slick editing being their calling card, the handheld cameras in no way being a detriment. Any sequence involving a football match is framed brilliantly to hype up the drama and tension, with the opening recounting of the 31-0 being particularly good, shown in just the right way to illustrate how heartbreaking and damaging it was.

Aside from that there is the competent visualisation of the beautiful surrounds of American Samoa itself, a tropical paradise of green forests, blue seas and towering mountains, which the ultra high definition cameras used for filming were made for. As mentioned, the directors are the first to be granted permission to make a documentary about this side and they make the most of this splendid opportunity, with a colourful blend of “fly on the wall” footage and more standard interview set-ups. They leave little trace of their presence, something I usually appreciate in a documentary like this (the opposite of the Michael Moore-style documentary, which are invariably about the “star”, the documentarian themselves) and generally seem happy to just follow along with the action. They must have ingratiated themselves with the team and their administration very well, since their never really seems to be any awkwardness around the camera (or maybe the American Samoans really don’t care).

I’ve sort of already gone into the themes of Next Goal Wins, but I suppose I can just land on them again briefly. The pride surrounding national representation within football is probably the main one. It’s what keeps the players of American Samoa going, beyond a simple adoration of the sport itself. To be called upon to wear the shirt of your nation is an honour, regardless of the quality of the nations football team, and that’s something that this squad take to heart in a complete way. Its part of the reason why they feel such a drive to actually make good on Rongen’s coaching, and take American Samoa up a level. It’s the reason they can leave the final tournament with their heads held high, despite their final faltering. Translating that immense feeling of pride into something productive on the pitch was Rongen’s job and he largely achieves that.

Next Goal Wins also shows us a bit about how sport can be a unifying force, for a nation and for different people. The American Samoa team is a collection of vastly different circumstances – soldiers for a foreign country, Dutch managers, transgender defenders – but once they are out on the field they play as one. Their nation, adopted or not, follows them as one. Being Irish I have more than my fair share of experience with how sport can capture the imagination of an entire country, for good or ill, and the experience is replicated wholesale with American Samoa. Issues of politics, gender, nationality and environmental disaster are brushed to the side when the nation is at play on the football field, or at least that is how it should be.

That sense of pride I keep mentioning is wrapped up in the idea of the nation of course, even one such as American Samoa, caught in that strange limbo between fully sovereign and being just another US state. Sport is even more important in such a situation, as a means of helping to define a nation. Watching these guys pull on that jersey and step out onto the field to the sight of their flag reminded me very much of the first episode of RTE’s Green Is The Colour, a documentary series on the history of football in Ireland post-independence. An immense struggle took place for the “Irish Free State” to even be recognised as a sovereign nation by the governing body of football. When they finally were, and when they were finally awarded their first international in 1926, away to Italy, the hosts didn’t even have an Irish flag. The Irish brought their own. As that documentary pointed out, this stuff really does matter greatly for the sense of self for a nation. Visual evidence matters. 11 men dressed in the colours of the nation playing on an even keel with their peers can be a more powerful symbol of national existence than any government building or sword of state. While American Samoa might not be actively looking for independence, it doesn’t mean they can’t be proud about their nation.

As I mentioned at the start, the best sports films are, in my view, those that aren’t really about a sport. They’re about how the medium of sport influences and affects other things. Next Goal Wins is one of those films, telling a story of team work, fraternity and national pride ahead of any kicking of a ball. In the end, Next Goal Wins might be viewed as primarily a film for those who are already in love with the game, but for those that aren’t there are few better introductions than this. It captures so much of what makes football great, and why so many are head over heels in love with it as an activity and a spectacle. The expressive pull of this film will be enough to get inside the heart of even the most stringent sports-hater who will surely be left close to tears by the simple sight of a group of players walking out onto a field to represent their nation, ever optimistic, ever proud and ever ready to just keep trying. I know I was. In combination with the individual stories that excel at crafting an emotional portrait of a football team, this is a sports film for the ages.

A wonderful documentary.

A wonderful documentary.

(All images are copyright of Icon Productions).

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3 Responses to Review: Next Goal Wins

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