“Next Goal Wins” is a comedy based on a documentary of true events. A very bad soccer team from American Samoa had one of the worst games ever. But perhaps the losing streak is now about to be over. A new coach is sent to lead the team to victory. If Jamaica can have a bobsledding team, then this team should come out on top, right?
Football, as it is known to the rest of the world, is what we call Soccer here in America. But in American Samoa, Soccer is called an impossible dream. Back in 2001, the team played a match against Australia to qualify for the World Cup. They lost by 31 to 0. Yup, not a single goal was scored. So what could improve this terrible team?
A sideline assistant coach for the U.S. National team has a bit of an anger issue. Thomas Rongen (played by Michael Fassbender) was thrown out of match when a call did not go his way. He was brought up before the Board of the U.S. National Team, and there given an ultimatum. His estranged wife Gail (played by Elisabeth Moss) and her new boyfriend — who is the Board President, Alex Magnussen (played by Will Arnett) — gave Thomas the choice. He could be fired, or take a job as coach of the team in American Samoa.
Thomas has his back up against the wall. He wants to be in charge of a winning team, not a bunch of ragtag losers. He gets to American Samoa to take the gig. There, he finds that just about every person on the island has a gig, usually two or three of them. The President of the Football Federation American Samoa is Tavita Taumua (played by Oscar Kightley). He is the soccer chief, but also is a cameraman for the local TV station.
Tavita is overjoyed that Thomas Rongen is here to guide the team to glory. Actually, all he really needs is for the team to make at least one single goal. That would be enough for him. Tavita is married and has a wife named Ruth (played by Rachel House). She thinks that Thomas could really turn things around and make the team competitive. But his son, Daru Taumua (played by Beulah Koale), plays on the current squad. He thinks that Thomas is an outsider and that his personality will not help them at all.
The island life is lived slow and easy. There are daily prayer breaks in the afternoon when a church bell rings. The speed limit on the dusty dirt roads are 25 MPH. Thomas Rongen has a bit of a culture shock to see that his strict and methodical instructions are just bluster in the tropical breeze. The laid-back culture of the Islanders is stronger than the coaching methods that Thomas can bring. He asks for help from the prior coach Ace (played by David Fane).
Ace tells him that island ways can give the team some benefits that Thomas might not recognize. There is a strong sense of unity and purpose. The team has transgender player named Jaiyah Saelua (played by Kaimana). The fact is that the Maori culture has a word for this: fa’afafine. Born as a male, that person now identifies as female – and the team has no problem with that at all.
The sense of purpose is also displayed by the cultural ‘war chant’ ritual that the team does just before a match. Thomas sees that this gives them a better, stronger purpose. Really all they need is some guidance as to how to move the ball down the pitch and how to defend the goal. Thomas is even able to identify a few of the past players, and convince them to come back one more time.
Gail and Alex visit the island of American Samoa just before the team is to leave for a new international match. Thomas Rongen is happy to see his wife again, but she knows they will never get back together. They share a common tragedy that tore them apart. His grief and pain continue to fuel his anger issues. But Thomas has been much more laid-back since being on the island.
Thomas understands that Tavita Taumua is counting on him to lead the American Samoa team to score at least one goal. He knows that Daru Taumua has held major doubts about Thomas Rongen’s ability to lead. Thomas now sees that the transgender player Jaiyah is capable and has a lot of heart. This team that he leads might not still be very good, but they are getting closer to that first goal in, well — forever.
Alex Magnussen tells Thomas that unless the American Samoa team can start racking up some wins, he will be forced to end all funding. The match against the Tonga club just became much more important. This match will be the first in the qualifications for the World Cup, but it will also hold the future of football on the island of American Samoa.
The team has travelled to Tonga for the match. The opponents are bigger and stronger. They laugh and make fun of the team that one once folded like a cheap suit. They bring up the 31-0 loss that the American Samoa team suffered years ago.
The goalkeeper from that game is back on the squad now. He has learned from years of replaying the match on a video game to see what moves he should have made. The Tonga squad has no respect the American Samoa team, the coach, the organization, the goalkeeper, or for transgender player Jaiyah.
So, can the scrappy little group of underdogs fight the oversized dogs on the block? Can the Maori culture of war chants before the big match fire up the American Samoa team? Can they see past the prior loss that seemed to tear the team down? Will they rise to meet the challenge of the moment? Can these downtrodden losers get back on track with at least the first Goal in ages?
“Next Goal Wins” is a wonderfully quirky retelling of the original true story. The documentary of the same name could not get into the funny interpersonal dynamics of the team and the coach. Taika Waititi, along with help from Iain Morris, has written a crowd-pleasing sports underdog movie that is sure to satisfy.
Michael Fassbender is more known for heavy dramatic roles. But here he takes a comedic role and still delivers a solid performance that touches on the past pain in the characters life. The cast of the team and the island people are almost all from Maori background and heritage. That adds a distinct level of honesty to the production.
Taika Waititi is from the Maori heritage as well, and he is able to serve up a very respectful look at the culture. These are a people who are laid back, but not lazy. They have a deep respect for their own past, and remember it song and dance. They are a culture of openness and understanding. They might look slow and not competitive, but deep down they are warriors.
“Next Goal Wins” gets a clean shot and kicks the ball cleanly as the movie moves the ball effortlessly down the pitch to get it there and score a big-time ‘GOOOOOAAAAALLLLL’…
Next Goal Wins
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Screenplay by: Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
Based on Documentary: “Next Goal Wins” by Mike Brett, Steve Jamison
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss
Cinematography: Lachlan Milne
Edited by: Nicholas Monsour
Music by: Michael Giacchino
Distributed by: Searchlight Pictures
Release date: November 17, 2023
Length: 103 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some strong language and crude material
Genre: Sports Comedy