Next Goal Wins: Tribeca Review

Tribeca Film Festival
Nicky Salapu in "Next Goal Wins"
An intrinsically compelling true-life story, adorable underdog protagonists, and an exotic South Pacific location – what’s not to like?

Notorious for losing 31-0 against Australia in a World Cup qualifying match, the national soccer team for American Samoa become unlikely heroes in this sports-themed documentary.

An accessible, uplifting sports documentary, Next Goal Wins salutes the tenacious spirit of American Samoa’s national football (aka soccer) team as they struggle to break the worst losing streak in the international history of the game. Directed by British duo Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, who prior to this mostly shot commercials for brands like Nike and Adidas, the film lucks out by having an intrinsically compelling story, likeable underdog protagonists, and an exotic South Pacific location.

After debuting at Tribeca in April, this opens on April 25 in the U.S., and in May in the U.K. and Japan in time to tap into football fever before the World Cup starts in June in Brazil. Although not expected to enter the premier league of theatrically successful football-themed movies (a small division anyway), Next Goal Wins is quirky, upbeat and character-driven enough to cross over to folk who aren’t particular fans of the sport, especially on ancillary platforms.

Composed of semi-amateur players who have to train in their off-hours, the American Samoa team earned an ignominious place in football history in 2001 by losing 31-0 against Australia during a qualifying match for the 2002 World Cup. Piling ineptitude atop of incompetence, they went on to lose every competitive game they played for another 10 years. Given the national population numbers just 55,000 souls, changing the team’s line-up wasn’t an easy option, and despite earning a notoriety that haunts him all the way to Seattle where he lives, goalkeeper Nicky Salapu stayed with the team over that decade, finally deciding to retire around 2011.

It’s at this point that the filmmakers start recording events, covering preparations for the qualifying rounds for the 2014 World Cup. The local football association representatives have no illusions that the team will ever make it to Brazil unless they buy tickets as spectators, but it would be nice to win just one game for a change after 17 years of defeats.

Reaching out to the U.S. Soccer Federation, they are loaned coach Thomas Rongen, a seasoned professional from Netherlands who looks permanently flushed by sunburn and fury. His abrasive manner seems at first like an ill-fit with the gentle-hearted, fatalistic Samoan players. However, Rongen has his own tragic reasons to immerse himself in work and against all the proverbial odds, he starts licking the men into shape through relentless training, team-building exercises and lots of shouting.

I say “men,” but as it happens the American Samoan team has one player, Jaiyah Saelua, who was born biologically a man but lives as a woman and identifies herself as a member of Samoa’s third gender, the Fa'afafine. Treated with total tolerance and respect by her teammates, Saelua gradually becomes a star player in the film, and arguably on the team, as her confidence grows both on and off the pitch. Other profiled players include: Team captain Liatama Amisone Jr., who teaches math at the local high-school; Ramin Ott who takes leave from the U.S. Army to join; ringer Rawlston Masaniai, and American-born midfielder whose Samoan grandparent qualifies him to play for the side; and the aforementioned Salapu, who comes out of retirement for a last chance to redeem his career.

Even viewers with absolutely no knowledge of the story, well-documented in the media at the time, will be able to predict that there will be a happy ending of sorts here. (Otherwise, what would be the point in making a documentary about it all apart from epic levels of Schadenfreude?) Nevertheless, footie fans and newbies alike will enjoy the way Brett, Jamison and editor Julian Quantrill ratchet up the suspense as the American Samoans gird themselves for battle on the pitch against teams from Tonga, the Cook Islands, and their arch-rivals Samoa on the latter’s home turf. With assist from Roger Goula’s shamelessly sentimental score, the climactic game duly becomes an irresistible tear-jerker.

Shot on a new generation of RED camera by the directors themselves, the visuals capture the kinetic energy of the action as well as the native beauty of the local landscape.

Venue: Tribeca (Tribeca Sports Film Festival)

Production: An Agile Films, Archer’s Mark production

Cast: Thomas Rongen, Nicky Salapu, Jaiyah Saelua, Ramin Ott, Liatama Amisone Jr., Shalom Luani, Rawlston Masaniai, Gail Rongen

Director: Mike Brett, Steve Jamison

Producers: Kristian Brodie, Mike Brett, Steve Jamison

Executive producers: Myles Payne, David Staniland

Director of photography: Steve Jamison

Editor: Julian Quantrill

Music: Roger Goula

Sales: K5 International

No rating, 92  minutes