At various points in the 97-minute film, it’s hard to believe “Next Goal Wins” is a real-life documentary, not a finely scripted work of fiction. This story of the American Samoa national soccer team pursuing its first-ever victory follows the underdog movie formula to such perfection, viewers may question if it is nonfictional.
But sometimes, reality is the only stage on which the most unbelievable stories can be told without mockery. Colored with shades of sports movie classics such as “Hoosiers” and “Cool Runnings,” “Next Goal Wins” is not a hard movie to figure out. Although the predictability can turn off some, directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison capture the humor and pathos of the American Samoan society that enrich the film.
Perhaps the documentary can only exist in a place like American Samoa, a tiny, remote island in the South Pacific. Deeply religious and tightly knit, American Samoa is an oasis of innocence in a time of globalization and modernity. Its national team reflects that naivete, and the men who represent their homeland play soccer as a hobby, not as a profession. The film lets the viewer know in the opening montage what happens when Samoan amateurism clashes against the bigger, professional soccer world: a record-setting 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001.
Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper who started in the 31-0 match, is haunted by that loss to Australia, recognized around the world as the “world’s worst goalkeeper.” Despite living far away in Seattle, retired from international soccer, Salapu comes back to American Samoa for one last run, hoping he will find redemption this time. As the veteran of the team and the main protagonist of the film, Salapu’s story is simplistic and less fleshed out when compared to that of his coach, Thomas Rongen.
The transformation of the American Samoa team would not have been possible without Rongen, a professional soccer coach who flew in from the United States to help the American Samoan team. From the introductory scene, Rongen is like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver on the island of Liliput. He clashes with the players on their lack of fitness and technique. As an atheist, he struggles to understand the devout Samoan society.
As Rongen slowly improves the American Samoa team, he himself goes through a spiritual metamorphosis as well. Rongen, like Salapu, is a man haunted by the loss of his daughter due to a car accident, and the intimate society in American Samoa allows the hardened coach to open up about his personal wounds.
By the end, Rongen is a changed man, more mellow in temperament and in peace with his daughter’s death. Rongen wears his daughter’s cap during the Tonga match. As he sums it up in the end, Rongen lost one daughter but found 23 new sons in American Samoa. Rongen’s transformation adds an emotional layer that heightens the viewer’s vested interest toward the team.
A generic sports movie tends to build its emotional connections with the viewers on the successes and failures of the team. A big part in the allure of sports lies in the mythology of winners and champions, affirming their special place in greater society. While “Next Goal Wins” slides perfectly into the ultimate underdog story arc, the movie loads the emotional weight on the perennial losers, who all carry their own faults and haunted dreams. Some may complain about the lack of surprises in the documentary, as it sometimes cruises on a well-worn path in sports narratives. But “Next Goal Wins” is a winner, standing above other similar sports movies with endearing warmth and humor.
Contact Seung Y. Lee at [email protected].