Sports documentaries about the plight of an underdog often come across as clichéd, overworked and overdone. An awful team enlists a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach who drags them from failure to glory; seen it all before, right? Well, prepare to be proved wrong. Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s Next Goal Wins, based on American Samoa’s national football team, is more than your average underdog narrative. The directors manage to present this unbelievable story with a degree of reality that makes for captivating viewing.
The film begins with a flashback to a 2001 World Cup qualifier; it is American Samoa’s heaviest defeat. In fact, it is the heaviest defeat in the history of international football – a 31-0 drubbing at the hands of Australia. The Australia debacle sets the scene for the rest of the film. We quickly learn that American Samoa’s football squad aren’t just bad – they are the worst team in football history.
The film flashes forward to November 2011 and the Samoans are still at the bottom of the FIFA world rankings, with a ghastly international record of zero wins and 30 losses. Rather than induce sympathy, the film’s early moments are more likely to draw a snicker or two from the audience. The players, many of whom look no fitter than your average middle-aged couch potato, struggle mightily: huffing, puffing and spluttering their way to defeat after defeat.
The turning point in American Samoa’s fortunes comes with the arrival of a US Soccer Association-appointed coach, Thomas Rongen. The weathered Dutchmen’s attempts to guide the Samoans to their first-ever victory see him recruit former German third-division player Rawlston ‘Rawley’ Masaniai and US soldier Ramin Ott to the squad, as well as implementing a rather painful training programme. Watching Rongen adapt to the Samoan way of life, while attempting to turn the team into a semi-competent side, is riveting. One of the film’s more powerful scenes sees the 53-year-old demonstrate how to execute sliding tackles on a waterlogged pitch in the pouring rain.
Brett and Jamison’s well-rounded approach is perhaps the greatest strength of Next Goal Wins. By including a fair share of emotional and intriguing sub-plots, the film goes above and beyond football. We meet Jaiyah ‘Johnny’ Saelua, a member of the island’s ‘third gender’, who becomes the first-ever transgender person to play in a World Cup qualifier. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper who conceded those 31 goals to Australia, who attempts, over the course of the film, to gain redemption, or at least a shred of respect.