In a curious case of coincidence, I had been chatting with co-workers next to a map of the world, and one of us noticed a tiny island in the South Pacific. We all leaned in a little closer… “I didn’t know there was an American Samoa!” If the tiny country is not well-known, it has had modern infamy for the fact that American Samoa’s soccer team suffered the all-time worst loss in international play, when the Australians whipped them to the tune of 31 to 0. The poor guys were stuck at the rock-bottom of the FIFA world rankings, below war-torn and poverty stricken countries. Their soccer team simply sucked big time.
But along comes this charming documentary film to redeem the beleaguered team, profiling a few months as they bring in a new Dutch-American professional soccer coach named Thomas Rongen as they prepare for the 2014 World Cup international tournament. Many of the players were around during the horrifically humiliating loss from a decade earlier, while some are just teenagers and know about the loss through local lore. As the country has a population of just about 60,000, none of these players are professionals, so their dedication to showing up after work, or early in the morning for practice is admirable. But because of this, it is not really a surprise that most of the players don’t even have enough stamina to physically make it through a 90-minute game. Coach Rongen has his work cut out for him.
Not just a feel-good profile of an underdog team, Next Goal Wins introduces us to a culture that most of us probably don’t know about. The people of this tiny island are proud of their culture and their faith, so much so that goalie Nicky, an expat who lives in Seattle, flies back to practice with the team (in hopes that he can put closure on his own haunting memory of being the pummeled goalie during the loss to Australia). It is also heartening to see the team’s support of one of their best players, Jaiyah, who happens to be transgender. She plays alongside the men and often forgets to respond to her registered male name from the officials.
You know that the team couldn’t get much worse, so the fun of watching Next Goal Wins is to see if they can walk about from the World Cup regional playoffs with, well, a goal or at least a tie. As far as watching sports action, the camerawork is a bit shaky and distant. The movie shines most when it concentrates on the players rather than the sport. Regardless, you want this team to have their heads held high at the end, and (spoiler!) you won’t be disappointed.