A shining example of how sports aren't simply about competition and domination, but about camaraderie, self-discovery, and love.
Next Goal Wins
The story at the center of sports doc Next Goal Wins is classic underdog material: American Samoa’s national football (soccer) team is notorious for suffering one of the worst losses in the history of the sport, losing to Australia 31-0 in 2001. The failure haunted the team for years, particularly their emotionally scarred goalie, Nicky, who’s watched the ball whoosh by him and into the net so many times (including those embarrassing 31 points) it torments him daily. Filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison follow the team (ranked as the worst team in the world by FIFA for years) as they give their mind, body, and spirit to trek down the path of redemption with the lofty goal of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Any filmmaker with a decent skill set could fashion a good movie out of this stuff with minimal effort; the story is remarkable in itself, basically tailor-made for the sports doc format. But Brett and Jamison go above and beyond, crafting an uplifting, stirring film that does the team justice. The players give their heart and soul on the field, and Brett and Jamison give their heart and soul behind the camera and in the editing room.
Nicky, who still plays on the team more than a decade after the brutal loss to Australia, hasn’t improved much as a player since; the team is still on an epic losing streak, after all. But his ability to recognize his shortcomings and use his past failures as motivation makes him an inspiration to the younger players on the team. Despite his undying spirit, he’s getting older, and he’s got a family in Seattle who needs him. In 2011, Nicky retired from the sport with the burden of his terrible performances weighing heavy on his shoulders.
Identifying as Samoa’s third gender, Fa’afafine, Jaiyah Saelua is the unofficial beating heart of the team. “I walk feminine, I do feminine things…but as soon as the whistle blows, I turn all of that off.” The Samoan community genuinely accepts transgender people unlike most Western cultures, and it’s heartwarming to see how warm and effortlessly indiscriminate she’s treated by her teammates.
Though the team isn’t lacking in drive or passion, they sorely lack the skills to make them competitive on the international level. To help the team get their game up to par, the United States Soccer Federation send a savior; an experienced, hard-nosed Dutchman named Thomas Rongen (he was the only applicant to respond to a help-wanted ad).
At first a bullheaded taskmaster who finds the Samoan community’s laid-back lifestyle a detriment to quality training, he slowly but surely loosens up, soaking in the beauty of island life. He’s amazed at the fact that most of the players practice football on their free time, as they go to multiple jobs throughout the day and night. “Show me how to fight. I’ll show you how to win,” Rongen pleads with his troops in a motivational speech.
Once he and the team get comfortable with each other, he shares with them that he and his wife lost their daughter at 18. He urges the players (some of whom are as old as his daughter was when she died) to make the most of every minute, a beautiful scene that’s the hallmark of countless sports movies, but is as stirring here as any.
Rongen and the team, now well-trained, pumped up, and anxious to redeem themselves and represent their country well, take the field in a series of World Cup qualifying matches, captured beautifully by the directors. The matches are incredibly tense and entertaining, and look as slick as a narrative sports production. In fact, the whole movie looks incredibly cinematic, with the filmmakers capturing the serenity of the island and the spirituality it inspires in all its inhabitants.
After calling it quits, Nicky is convinced by coach Rongen to return to the team and play in the qualifying matches. The fact that the players (particularly Jaiyah, who emerges as a star) are leaving their blood and guts on the field to honor their country is rousing enough, but the added element of Nicky fighting to prove once and for all that he isn’t a loser with all his might makes the third act of the film simply electric. Next Goal Wins is a shining example of how sports aren’t simply about competition and domination, but about camaraderie, self-discovery, and love.