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Next Goal Wins: a stereotype-defying sports documentary

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After a 31-0 loss to Australia, American Samoa was the world’s worst international football team.

 

Next Goal Wins is the terrifically well-made, massively under-appreciated and surprisingly emotional documentary that charts their recovery. The film shows them score their first ever goal and win their first ever game as well as teaching their new Dutch coach some important cultural lessons. Perfect for football fans and non-football fans alike, Next Goal Wins is an exemplary ‘feel good film’.

This film is also an underappreciated gem. Being a documentary feature it didn’t make much of a splash on its 2014 release, but did receive critical acclaim, winning the Best Documentary Award at the British Independent Film Awards.

The great appeal of Next Goal Wins is that - despite its status as a football documentary - it doesn't tell familiar stories about big stars. Instead this is a story of a small, down on their luck team who were willing to work hard and take immense pride in playing for their country. It also comes with the arresting backdrop of cultural exchange between the Dutch coach and his American Samoan team.

To begin with things seem as bleak as can be - the team remain haunted by their gargantuan loss to Australia in 2001 and their coach fails to connect with the team. Notably he refers to the teams’ transgender player (the first transgender player ever to compete in a men’s FIFA World Cup Qualifier,) as ‘Johnny’, despite the fact the team and everyone else call her Jaiyah, and this arguably small transgression aptly illustrates his failure to motivate a squad in desperate need of positivity and progress.

Following a promise from FIFA to help advance American Samoa as a footballing nation, Thomas Rongen (the sole applicant for the position,) arrives having spent most of his footballing career in the USA. His steely determination and experience alongside a genuine interest in American Samoan culture sees whole-heartedly accepted among the islanders as he gets the team back on their feet.

Though Next Goal Wins is essentially a documentary, it breaks the documentary mould in that it is impressive on a visual level as well as in its content. American Samoa’s beauty is displayed to its full when the chance is afforded and sections based on training sessions/matches/social occasions are shot with a subtle attention to detail that helps the whole feature pull together well.

 

The film is also an interesting insight into the culture of Pacific islanders, which is an accepting, optimistic and deeply religious one.

 

American Samoa is a country that has to be perpetually ready for adverse weather conditions and even natural disaster; a memorable section of the film recalls an occasion when much of the island suffered a devastating flood. The following day the team showed their spirit and trained anyway, despite the fact there was no grass left on their playing field.

 

Weather is not the only worry, though - idyllic as American Samoa is, most young American Samoans struggle to gain employment in their own country and as a result a high percentage of young men go into the US military. One of the players the film focuses on is a soldier himself and in an amazingly self-sacrificing move, takes his whole annual leave to help the team in their World Cup qualification campaign. All the players work at least one day job while also training twice a day with the football squad, and at times it seems their religious faith is what pushes them to train and work so hard.

What makes this insight still more interesting is seeing the coach, Thomas Rongen, immersed in it. The audience watch him learn about the American Samoan way of life and explore a new country while simultaneously watching the team benefit from his experience as a coach.

It is the multi-layered effect of Next Goal Wins that makes it such a triumph. On one hand it is a truly heart-warming redemption story for an initially inept football team, and on the other it is an amazing insight into a country with a unique culture, a beautiful landscape and its own very tough, set of problems.

It offers as many cultural lessons as it does lessons about tolerance, integration and commitment. All those lessons come wrapped in an emotional journey that is immensely visually appealing. Next Goal Wins is an under-appreciated great that escapes many of the limitations of the documentary genre.

 Originally published on Maverick Film.

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