4.5 / 5 stars
In the current listings from FIFA, the association that oversees international soccer, the team from American Samoa is ranked 197th. Sounds horrible, but things have been worse. For nearly two decades, the football squad from the small South Pacific island nation had been ranked dead last, having never won an international match. If ever there were an underdog tale to be told, it’s this one, the story of a proud, familial group of guys who represent their culturally rich country as the world’s worst football team. Filmmakers Steve Jamison and Mike Brett clearly understand the value and potential of such a narrative, and know just how to capture the essence of the players, their home and their historic one-small-step progress.
Jamison and Brett also know soccer—and emotional storytelling. As creative leads in the advertising world, the pair has produced a bunch of short films for Nike, and their flair for the dramatic is a driving force in Next Goal Wins. They set the stage right away, during the film’s opening credits, by recounting the most punishing loss in international soccer history, a 31-0 loss to Australia that sits like a constant albatross around the American Samoan neck. Thus begins a journey to redemption.
Even if the team had experienced little improvement and learned few lessons, Next Goal Wins would still shine on execution alone. Jamison and Brett blend their advertising sheen with an organic acumen for documentary filmmaking–the footage, both on-field and off-, is beautifully composed and edited like a mature highlight reel (or lowlight, depending on the match). But, Next Goal Wins captures more, thanks to a stroke of luck that would make sports history.
After an embarrassing showing in a South Pacific tournament, the team from American Samoa welcomes a new head coach, a tough, salty veteran of the soccer world named Thomas Rongen. The Amsterdam native pushes his new team extra hard and has a couple tricks up his sleeve, with just one goal: Getting the ragtag team just a little bit better before the qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup.
What follows are stories of persistence, acceptance and personal growth, told with an unexpected dignity. You can tell that Jamison and Brett, above all, have a deep respect for the people they’re capturing and the fraternity to which they all belong. After an exuberant sequence in which Rongen teaches the fellas how to slide-tackle on wet grass, the camera keeps its distance from the team huddle. The filmmakers want to get us close to the team, but understand the humility and artistry that privacy conveys.
Rongen, licking his own emotional wounds, becomes the film’s motivational mouthpiece, a modern-day Knute Rockne who embraces his team and their culture, just as the movie itself does. One of the film’s favorite personalities—and one of Coach Rongen’s, as well—is Jaiyah, a confident player who can be happily transgendered in a country that actually accepts and celebrates the lifestyle. Her feminine ways are practically counterintuitive to a “sports movie,” but are right at home in this one.
Like most superior underdog movies, the real depth and lifeblood of Next Goal Wins occurs before the big match. But the big match does come, and its rhythm and result are undeniably fantastic. In one of my favorite 1980s movies, Vision Quest, a hotel cook played by J.C. Quinn launches into a monologue about the beauty of soccer greatness, that witnessing a Pelé goal was “pretty goddamn glorious.” I know the feeling.