Following his review of the exciting new documentary on the American Samoa national football team, Next Goal Wins, Steve got chatting to one of the co-directors, Steve Jamison:
Steve Jamison: No problem, thank you for your interest and your support of the movie. I’m very happy to talk about it, it’s been an amazing experience.
SN: What made you want to make a documentary about the American Samoan national team?
SJ: It’s a really good question. Our inspiration really came from two sources. First of all me and my co-director Mike (Brett) have been working in the commercial space for a few years now and for four or five years have made a lot of sports related brand films for some big sports brands and we were looking for a purer form of story I suppose.
We had been making these short brand films of like a minute, a couple of minutes or half a minute and we really wanted to dig a little deeper and tell more engaging, character driven story. What we really wanted to do was capture the purest form of the game that we love.
Mike and I are long time friends and actually met playing football back in university so we really wanted to capture the purest form of this sport that brought him and me together.
We met with Kristian Brodie who works for Agile Films and he said how about American Samoa? They were defeated 31-0 in 2001 by Australia and he was pretty sure at the time they were bottom of FIFA’s world rankings.
Of course Mike and I were aware of the 31-0 defeat, it is something that has gone down in football folklore so it seemed like a great place to start if you wanted to explore the purest form of football. The best place to start would be with a team that still come out for the second half if they are 15 or 16-0 down.
I think, at the time we started filming with them, their best result was a 4-0 defeat, which was a kind of benchmark for them.
So that was our inspiration, football is an amazing game with the power to bring people together. I know that sounds very cliché but it’s true. This film has led me to meet so many people and it all stems from this sport.
So out we went to American Samoa to see if we could find out what kept this team playing in the face of almost certain defeat.
SN: How difficult was it to get the ball rolling and get out to American Samoa? And how helpful were their football association? I read that previously that they were wary of people giving them coverage because they thought people were coming to poke fun of the fact they lost 31-0 and were bottom of the world rankings.
SJ: You’re absolutely right, in the first few minutes of the film we have a montage of all the newspaper headlines that followed that famous defeat. Some of the headlines are really quite cruel and there was a lot written in 2001 that was mickey taking.
The football association of American Samoa had endured many an enquiry from many a film-maker or journalist who were quite keen to come and tell a funny story. So you’re right. It was quite difficult. In fact just to get in touch with them is quite difficult because the time difference is about 13 hours and they’re not big users of email so to get through to them on their landline took a few weeks.
Once we were in contact it took a few weeks to earn their trust and convincing them we weren’t interested in telling the story that had been told before and we weren’t interested in ridiculing them for past defeats or the negative headlines and in fact we wanted to celebrate the fact that these guys should be held as example of true sporting heroes because they go out there and play for the love of the game.
They are not playing for a win or a big money contract or sponsorship, they’re just playing for the love of it.
I think once we convinced them of that fact they were happy for us to head out there and start filming with them. Then we had to work out how to get 300 kilos of filming equipment 10,000 miles to the middle of the Pacific, which was a 52 hour trip door to door.
The funny thing is I don’t think they believed that we would actually show up because they agreed to pick us up from the airport but they never showed up. I think they thought we said we would come but never actually would. When we did start filming with them we put out cameras down and went and had a kick a bout. As I said before football has this power to bring people together. It’s such a cliché to say it’s a universal language but it genuinely is.
SN: It’s an interesting contrast with the World Cup coming up where we will see the best of the best in football. This documentary is coming out just prior to that. With respect to American Samoa and the team this is very much the opposite end of football. It’s quite interesting to see what teams go through at the other end of the game.
SJ: Exactly. First things first, in every World Cup I can remember, and I suppose the first one I can remember was in 1986, my favourite moments were never when the star player has done something incredible. It has always been when a small nation or developing country has staged an upset and I think and there is something about that sport that gets people drawn in by that.
Whether it’s Roger Milla for Cameroon in 1990 or four years ago in South Africa when South Africa took the lead in the opening fixture they’re really the things that captivate an international audience. It’s the little guys, the underdog story, that people like to get behind and I think there’s a little bit of that in our documentary.
When we went out there to start filming it was not long after the last World Cup. The English game had suffered a few little dents with the behaviour of some players, clubs or managers catching the headlines for all the wrong reasons. I don’t need to go into those specific cases now but the sport had been a little bit dented, or its reputation had, and that frustrated us. I don’t want to make it sound more grand than it was but we kind of wanted to rescue the reputation of soccer in our own minds and prove that these few isolated incidents weren’t representative of the sport as a whole.
That’s why we went to American Samoa, football is so pure there you can’t help but fall back in love with the game.
SN: At the start of the documentary Thomas Rongen, the Dutch coach, was not involved with the team. Did you know of his impending arrival before you started filming?
SJ: Absolutely not, we weren’t aware of it at all. When we first went out there we went to film with the local teams and local coaches and we filmed there for almost six weeks and then we came back to the UK.
It was only then after the poor initial results in the South Pacific Games that the CEO decided to ask the US Soccer Federation for some help but we had no idea if it would happen and we were quite worried that Thomas’s arrival might mean the emphasis of this film might shift.
He came in from the MLS, the highest level of soccer in the United States and he might actually turn round and say we can’t film his training sessions because they need to concentrate or they need less distractions.
Far from thinking that this guy might be the making of our film, we were worried that he might break our film but in the end it very much played into our favour in terms of the overall narrative because Thomas arrived and was another amazing character to add to the story and he goes on an amazing journey.
I think Thomas, by his own admission, arrived there and had some preconceived ideas and working with the guys on the island really softened his approach. He builds this relationship with the team where they kind of soften him up but he really toughens them up.
It was quite an amazing thing to witness. Some of those scenes, to witness first hand from behind the camera was pretty amazing and I don’t think I’ll experience anything like that again.
SN: Before Thomas arrived the players all seemed really committed and really dedicated but lacking professionalism which is what he appeared to bring to the team.
SJ: When Thomas arrived he took one look at the squad and said ‘I can’t make you technically any better.’ Tactically his work was cut out because he didn’t have long to make any big changes to the way that the team is organised. He tried to make them a little more organised but a lot fitter. In three weeks he worked them really hard and improved their fitness.
SN: How much did the 31-0 loss to Australia affect not just the players but the country and its mentality towards football? Nicky (the goalkeeper from the 31-0 loss) seemed really affected by the result.
SJ: Nicky has been carrying that defeat around with him, and the scars from that defeat, for over 10 years. It really did play on his mind. I mean in the film Thomas jokes that Nicky plays on his XBOX against Australia, leaves the Australia controller on the sofa and just plays against the computer to try and exorcise himself of those demons.
That was absolutely true. Nicky said exactly the same thing to us. He really suffered from that defeat and the same was true on the island. There weren’t many players left from that day. Ace, the coach was around on that day and Larry was involved as well but the rest of the team didn’t really wear the scars of that day.
American Samoa has trouble getting a competitive team on the field. For a start you can’t naturalise to America Samoa because they have US passports. They have an immigrant population with talented footballers, either from Samoa, or Fiji or even some Koreans who have all ended up there because of the fishing industry but none can naturalise and play for the national team.
Also soccer is perhaps the fifth sport on the island. It comes way after American Football, rugby, basketball, baseball and even a form of cricket they play so soccer is not the most popular sport.
Then when you reach 18 or 19 and graduate from high school there aren’t many jobs there so they join the US military or try to find further education or employment in the US. So if you look at the age group of 18-25, the age group most other national teams would be made up of, there really is slim pickings.
I think what their FA is trying to do now, and I’d love to think the film could help with this, is try to get football played at a grassroots level from around 5 years old and make it a more popular sport there and hopefully that will encourage some of the guys leaving the island to come back and represent their country and all take pride in it.
When you’re bottom of FIFA’s world rankings it’s hard to get people to come and engage with the sport so hopefully that won’t be the case in the future.
SN: Finally, have you planned in the future to go back and revisit the team and some of the people from the film?
SJ: Yea, 100%. Mike and I, and Kristian, and everyone involved, weren’t just in this for just one film. We’re really in it for the long haul and we’d love to find ways we can help develop soccer on the island.
Soon after the upcoming World Cup American Samoa have to start qualifying for the next one (Russia 2018). Not far into 2015 they begin their qualification process. Hopefully by then people will be more aware of the team and we can find ways of supporting and developing the game on the island.
We’d like to make American Samoa everyone’s second favourite team. The response here in America to the film was electrifying and if we can direct some of that positive energy towards the next qualification campaign then who knows, maybe American Samoa can go beyond that first stage of qualification.
NEXT GOAL WINS is out on 7 May (nationwide previews) and 9 May (select cinemas)