Despite being far from a perfect documentary, Next Goal Wins demands attention by offering an insight to one of the most inspirational underdog stories in recent memory. For this surprisingly uplifting picture takes you inside the training camp for American Samoa’s national football team, as they desperately hunt for their first win in over 30 games.
From the opening montage, which compiles all the goals from their record-breaking 31-0 loss to Australia back in 2001, it’s immediately noticeable that these players are smiling and laughing despite their position at the very bottom of FIFA’s world rankings.
This against-all-odds optimism in the squad makes them an engaging bunch to spend time with: you’ll probably be fervently supporting them by the final act. Emotional engagement at the very least is a certainty on several levels, not least because of details of how a 2009 tsunami ravaged the lives of the players, in turn revealing why they continue to dedicate all their spare time to football. They do it to prove themselves, to bring pride to their nation, and, perhaps most importantly, to spend time with their friends.
It’s a touching story, and an example of the transformative nature of sport, and football in particular. Whereas football films like Goal have told tales of hugely talented players struggling with epic hurdles like, ahem, the rain-levels in Newcastle, Next Goal Wins is a sports film for real people. It’s for anyone who was always picked last in PE, and for the countless teams around the world who keep playing for the camaraderie and their love of the game.
Which makes it a slight shame that the way this David and Goliath story is presented leaves a little bit to be desired. It’s a film with an interesting story to tell, that just needs a bit more confidence in the telling of it. For instance, it never really addresses factors such as how to present statistics, and as such you end up feeling a bit bombarded by text-on-screen, with league tables, newspaper headlines and fixtures all popping up a bit too regularly. Although a voiceover may have seemed cheesy, it could have helped the film flow much better.
The unavoidable timeline of real-life events means the film sags slightly in the middle, too. Anyone expecting non-stop football action may leave disappointed. The competitive matches essentially book-end the narrative, with the second act focusing on giving the squad some backstory and delving into off-the-pitch problems. When the action kicks back in with a training montage Stallone would be proud of though, the film picks up.
Aside from some shockingly good goals, the biggest treat here is the genuine characters on display. Dutch football coach Thomas Rongen, who steps in to train the team for their 2011 World Cup qualifying games, begins as a disliked Fergie-style hairdryer deployer, but soon embarks on a heart-warming personal journey. You’ll really root for Nicky Salapu too, the goalkeeper haunted by the 31-0 thrashing who admirably returns to tackle his demons. Jaiyah Saelua also inspires as the first transgender player to play in World Cup qualifying.
When the whistle blows for full time on this footballing adventure, you will want to know more about what these unfathomably determined players achieved next, which is really saying something considering how little you (probably) knew about them before Next Goal Wins kicked off. For it’s the heart of this story, and the characters therein, that make Next Goal Wins a very worthwhile watch.
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