Back in 2001 during the soccer world cup qualifiers, the small Pacific island of American Samoa made history. Achieving the once in a lifetime, never repeated world record…. of suffering the worst defeat ever at the hands of the Australian Socceroos, 31-0! Hopelessly outmatched, the stigma followed the small team for years afterwards.
It is ten years later and very little has changed. The team face yet another in a long line of defeats leading Tavita the head of the FFAS (Football Federation of American Samoa) to make a change. Applying overseas for a new coach, any coach, they receive only one volunteer. Perhaps volunteer is a strong word to describe Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who is forced to take the job.
A disgraced, burned out Dutch-American coach down on his luck, Thomas reluctantly accepts. However, he finds American Samoa may as well be another planet. It’s people, while incredibly accommodating and kind, have no discipline for soccer. Thomas aims simply to bust this team into good enough shape to kick a single goal. However, along the way he may just learn that winning isn’t everything and discover in himself the same love for the game shared by these scrappy underdogs.
After years of making impressive indie films in his native New Zealand, Taika Waititi became one of the biggest names in Hollywood thanks to several back to back hits. His mixture of comedy with heartfelt stories clicked with audiences and critics alike, with Jojo Rabbit winning him an Oscar for adapted screenplay. His follow up Thor: Love and Thunder was seen as a misstep with an over reliance on humour sapping any dramatic tension.
Which brings us to Next Goal Wins, a film where Waititi seems to go back to his roots, telling a true life story with ties to his Polynesian heritage. Based upon the documentary of the same name by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison which follows the real Thomas Rongen and his dealings with the American Samoan football team.
The endearing nature of the American Samoan people Thomas meets is something the film leans heavily on. It’s impossible to not smile with characters like Tavita (Oscar Kightley) or Ace (David Fane) whose simple way of life and happy nature are enviable. Waititi may paint Aussies in a less than flattering light, boisterously gloating over the 31-0 score a decade later. But thanks to just how likeable they are, we never get the sense that the film is mocking American Samoans.
Unfortunately, despite being based on a true story, many of these characters do not feel like real people. The problem starts from the film’s opening where Waititi himself plays an over the top caricature of a Samoan priest, breaking the fourth wall to narrate to the audience. Even as the first character we see on screen, he still feels out of place.
Next Goal Wins is relentlessly amusing but never feels comfortable enough to be sincere. Thomas is introduced in such a sloppy way, he is impossible to empathise with, as anything other than the silly white man out of his element. The growth he goes through as a character feels like it comes out of nowhere, only happening because it’s the point in the film where a change needs to happen.
This is a pity as there are interesting elements of this true story that a more interesting film could have been structured around, such as the transgender character of Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana). Jaiyah is fa’fafine, a third gender recognised by Samoan culture and the first trans woman to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. The struggles that they go through feel incongruous with the wacky self-aware sports satire Waititi is making here. It is the least formulaic part of the film yet is swept aside for the listless tale of a miscast Fassbender as an alcoholic coach learning to love again. One can’t help but wonder if a more fascinating feature could have been made about Jaiyah’s story.
I don’t want it to seem like Next Goal Wins is a complete misfire as it isn’t. Waititi is an exceptionally funny filmmaker and I feel that when it is a subject he is personally invested in, he works wonders. Next Goal Wins has plenty of laughs and some extremely likeable personalities to keep us thoroughly entertained. Sadly, it’s missing that spark which made the documentary which proceeded it such a classic.
Next Goal Wins is in cinemas from January 1, 2024.