“The elements here could hardly be more satisfying had they been devised by the most brazen TV showrunner,” wrote Charles Gant in Variety while reviewing Next Goal Wins in 2014. One could easily play Mad Libs with the reviews for this crowd-pleasing documentary. The film follows the American Samoa soccer team and its bid for a World Cup slot despite having the biggest losing streak in the history of the sport. Upon its release, critics called Next Goal Wins “an irresistible tear-jerker” with “delightful underdog characters.” It’s “[a] reminder that this game can be truly beautiful.” And in the best kicker, the trades noted, “Female audiences have loved it and men are sobbing.” Even the most cynical critic, however, can’t help but love this documentary.
Next Goal Wins, directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, delivers a highly entertaining and undeniably inspiring sports saga. All the ingredients are present for a terrific underdog story: a tale of crushing defeat, a team united by passion, a transgender trailblazer, and a predictably triumphant ending. Next Goal Wins is the Cool Runnings of sports documentaries. The American Samoan soccer team hits all the right notes to have audiences cheering them on, just as they did years ago for the Jamaican bobsled team that made its way to the Olympics. It’s pure catnip for audiences.
It’s no wonder, then, that Next Goal Wins is the latest documentary to receive a dramatic treatment. The drama, directed by Taika Waititi, premieres in September at the Toronto International Film Festival and seems destined for crowd-pleasing success. Waititi returns to Toronto as a defending champion of the People’s Choice Award after winning for his 2019 Hitler comedy Jojo Rabbit. Judging from this year’s festival line-up, he could be the first director to win the prize twice.
Next Goal Wins hits the festival as another example of Hollywood’s interest in documentaries for inspiration. The film comes from Searchlight Pictures and follows the arthouse distributor’s doc-to-drama treatment after 2021’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye tapped Jessica Chastain to play the televangelist featured in the cult favourite doc. The film won Chastain an Oscar, and Waititi’s film is atop prognosticators’ lists heading into this year’s festival. If the source material’s any indication, one can confidently expect Waititi to continue the Samoans’ streak of having more victories on screen than they do on the field.
The Original Doc
The original Next Goal Wins is irresistibly fun as it brings to the screen the tale of arguably the worst soccer team in the history of the sport. The film opens with news footage of the American Samoan team’s epic loss in 2001. They were making a play for a World Cup slot and got smoked by Australia 31 to 0. The loss was a punchline heard around the world.
Brett and Jamison’s take, though, is slickly composed sports documentary filmmaking. The duo self-financed the documentary and drew upon their years of experience making commercials for athletic brands like Nike and Adidas. Kinetic editing helps the players run faster and makes audiences feel the adrenaline rush. Moreover, shooting on a 5K RED camera, the visuals of Next Goal Wins make for an elevated underdog story, aided greatly by the picturesque views of the Pacific islands. Brett and Jamison depict these players as warriors on the field, no matter how much they run out of gas while chasing after the ball.
Once More Unto the Soccer Pitch
Ten years later after the 2001 loss, Brett and Jamison bring their cameras to the island as the team rallies for another shot at the World Cup. 2001 loss still stings, particularly for goalie Nicky Salapu, who vows not to let any balls slip by him. But the motley crew has its work cut out for them. None of the players is a professional athlete. They all work day jobs and play purely for the love of the game. With morning practices starting at 5:00am and evening practices done at 11:00pm, they face a recipe for burnout. But they’re determined, simply determined, to improve. If they score a single goal, they’ll perform better than they did last time.
It doesn’t help, either, that their current coach, Nicky, isn’t one for sports pep talks. As the team prepares for the South Pacific games and its first match in years, he tells the players to be more aggressive. “When you see a wounded animal, do you caress it? Do you put a Band-Aid on it?” he asks the team. “No, you kill it! You kill it and you eat it!”
The pep talk amps up the team somewhat. Spoiler alert: they lose 26:0. It’s progress, one baby step at a time.
Meet the New Coach
However, the loss inspires a change the team needs. Enter Thomas Rongen, a Dutch coach who accepts the challenge to put the team into shape. He brings a do-or-die sense of discipline the team needs. Gruelling training sessions follow. Rongen teaches them to slide in the mud, build their stamina, and some basic if slightly fancier footwork. Little by little, the players improve.
Once Coach Rongen steps on the field, the underdog spirit of Next Goal Wins gels around truly endearing characters. For one, the coach is tough, coarse, and salty, but also tender. He shares with the team his pain over losing his daughter, Nicole, in a car accident. His wife, Gail, accompanies him to the island. They show the team what it’s like to fight when one has nothing left to lose.
Waititi’s, meanwhile, film casts Irish actor Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) as Rongen and shifts the story to his perspective. Playing the down-and-out coach given a last-chance ultimatum, he accepts the gig of being the John Candy to soccer’s Jamaican bobsled team. This take on Next Goal Wins gives Rongen an even saltier treatment. The film dives deeper into the coach’s struggle with alcoholism, which the documentary implicitly acknowledges but doesn’t confront. Rongen often hits the field with a solo cup in hand in the documentary, whereas the drama sees him arrive in the Pacific Islands with enough booze to fuel a TIFF after party. The layers to this character arguably make Fassbender one of the actors to watch as Next Goal Wins kicks off the fall award season.
Jaiyah the Scene-Stealer
However, the team’s secret weapon—and also that of the film—is centre back Jaiyah Saelua. A member of Samoa’s third gender, the fa’fafine (way of the woman) or non-binary by western monikers, Jaiyah makes history as the first transgender player to start a World Cup qualifying game. The gravity of being a changemaker isn’t lost on her. She fights hardest to make her team proud, and seems most confident with the camera of all the players. She’s a winning spokesperson for the team.
Next Goal Wins offers a portrait of trans experiences in sport rarely seen. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see the acceptance of gender diversity in Samoan culture. While Coach Rongen initially cites the “feminine tendencies” of one of his “male players” as a concern, he quickly sees that Jaiyah, who hits the field in full make-up, is an asset. Rongen and some teammates occasionally catch themselves misgendering Jaiyah or saying her birth name, but they genuinely love and accept her. For a doc nearly ten years old, Next Goal Wins has an eye for Jaiyah’s story that goes beyond a coming out/transition experience. Moreover, of the players on the team, she gets the most airtime and the fullest backstory. The filmmakers recognize the star at their disposal and use Jaiyah’s accomplishments to accentuate the doc’s underdog spirit.
The one-two punch of the documentary and her performance on the field gave Saelua a slice of stardom. She sat out American Samoa’s 2018 bid for the World Cup because she was undergoing her medical transition, but returned to the team for the 2019 Pacific Games, which included a historic win for the country.
From Doc to Drama
In the dramatic take, Waititi respects Jaiyah’s significance in the story by casting fa’fafine actor Kaimana as the player. Next Goal Wins marks Kaimana’s debut performance, although Waititi reportedly considered casting Jaiyah as herself.
In an interview with Variety when the casting was announced, Waititi says that tapping an actor outside the field of cisgender players was key. “It was vital,” Waititi said. “There was no way we would have approached it in any other way.” The director added that the casting simply respects the Polynesian perspective on gender diversity. “It’s an accepted part of the culture and of life,” Waititi told Variety. “It’s very inclusive.”
Waititi generally looks to be staying close to the source material, aside tapping Hawaii to stand in for the island. The early footage for Next Goal Wins indicates that Waititi has a firm grip on the team’s significance, but also their self-deprecating spirit. The trailer, for example, advertises him as the Best Picture Oscar loser for Jojo Rabbit. (Making no mention of his win for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film, but whatever.) Moreover, his offbeat and quirky style caters somewhat better to the team’s own ramshackle spirit.
It’s the kind of story that, admittedly, many critics might label with the “strange but true” moniker that remind audiences that the best stories often come from life itself. If the Samoans win again, expect even more documentaries to get the Hollywood treatment.