American Samoa are an unlikely team to be etched in football folklore. The small Pacific island nation are in the record books with the heaviest defeat in international football, a 31-0 defeat to Australia in a qualifying match for the 2002 World Cup back in 2001.
The result had a number of effects on football. It led to preliminary rounds in Oceanic World Cup qualifying to reduce the chance of other embarrassing and crushing results and it kick started Australia’s campaign to move into the Asian Football Confederation as they looked to become more competitive. It also turned the American Samoan team into the butt of many joke and the answer to many a football quiz question.
Next Goal Wins, directed by Steve Jamison and Mike Brett, starts just prior to qualification for this summer’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Most telling about the quality and standard of a team who were, at the time, ranked bottom of FIFA’s world rankings, were heavy defeats, to fellow minnows such as Vanuatu and Fiji.
The players try hard, and the coaches are certainly encouraging, but there is a lack of professionalism and nous among the camp which limits this team. The American Samoan FA use their connections with the United States to bring in a professional football coach for the opening round of qualifiers where the team will face Tonga, the Cook Islands and Samoa.
That man was Thomas Rongen, a graduate of the Ajax academy, one of the most renowned in football, and a veteran of American soccer, having played with the likes of George Best and Johann Cruyff as well as coaching DC United and the US under 20 national team.
His impact on the team was massive. After struggling initially with a negative mentality he had to change the way the team thought as well as improve them physically and tactically. Rongen, whose wife accompanied him in this new venture, threw himself in, took on the challenge head on and endeared himself to the team.
He is just one of many characters in this documentary that make it so entertaining, funny and heart-warming. Another is goalkeeper Nicky Salapu. He was the ‘keeper in the 31-0 defeat to Australia and for many defeats after. He seems a glutton for punishment and keeps coming back for more. The heavy defeat seems to have affected him deeply and really left its mark.
Perhaps the most important person in Next Goal Wins, especially from a football perspective, is Jaiyah. She is the first transgender player to play in a FIFA sanctioned match. In American Samoa transgendered people are accepted, certainly more than they are in other parts of the world, and there is even a name in American Samoa for this ‘third gender’ – ‘Fa’afafine’.
Jaiyah is accepted as one of the team and is perhaps one of the most important in the team. She is constantly positive and Thomas recognises her importance to the mentality of the squad, however on the pitch she really shines as well.
It is refreshing to see how she is accepted by a team full of men, especially when you consider the problems surrounding gay footballers, or the lack of those who are out, in football at the highest professional level.
Homosexuality and transgenderism are of course two completely different things but the inclusion of somebody ‘different’ is great to see when the likes of Tomas Hitzlesperger feel they have to wait until they retire before they can come out. Saying much more would ruin the film for people, although you could search online and find out the team’s results under Rongen and in the time since he left.
Next Goal Wins transcends football and is a story about togetherness, ambition, and triumph over the odds and against adversity. While Next Goal Wins will find fans among the football community it has something for everyone and will serve a broader audience than just football supporters. And with a World Cup fast approaching that will feature the world’s best, and best paid players, this fantastic documentary shows what football is, or at least should, really be about.