I’m something of an outlier when it comes to soccer. In the U.S., it’s one of the most popular sports for kids, but as children get older, they tend to lose interest, opting for the “Big 4” type games (baseball, basketball, football, hockey). For me, however, it was the exact opposite. I hated it as a youngster, thinking it was only slightly less boring than televised golf. I got hyped up for the 1994 World Cup, because we as a nation were hosting, but after it was done, I had no interest in the burgeoning MLS (created as part of our bid to host said World Cup), and I only paid cursory attention to the 1998 tournament, where America finished dead last.
However, around that same time, I started becoming more interested in the experience of soccer, thanks to of all things, my high school gym class. I couldn’t run for shit (still can’t, honestly, though I have done a 5k successfully), and growing up I was always picked last for sports, so every time I played soccer, all I did was exhaust myself running up and down the field, never touching the ball, and getting winded extremely early because I didn’t know any proper breathing techniques. By high school, however, I had gym teachers who doubled as coaches for the various athletic teams, so they were able to help me correct some of my issues. They also stuck me in goal so I didn’t have to constantly sprint the pitch. Turns out, I was actually pretty good at being a keeper. Sure, it was PE and not any kind of real competition, but the fact that I never let in a goal (including one time saving a shot by accidentally batting it straight to another attacker and still somehow diving in time to save his open net follow, something I could never replicate if I tried for 100 years) finally succeeded in making the beautiful game, well, fun for the first time ever.
Ever since then I’ve been a massive fan. I follow the U.S. National Teams fairly obsessively, the Philadelphia Union became my de facto MLS club (growing up in the northern half of Delaware you default to Philly, and I’ve carried that with me long after I moved away from the area), my first girlfriend in Scotland turned me on to Rangers F.C. and I stuck with them even though the relationship ended almost two decades ago, and 10 years ago I actually did a summer-long deep dive into the entire Premier League to pick a team when NBC got an exclusive contract to broadcast every game domestically (a situation they’ve massively fucked up since, but that’s neither here nor there). I chose Liverpool — a decision I have never regretted — because of the history and the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” motto/anthem (my late mother used to sing it to me as a lullaby when I was very little, because she played Nettie Fowler in her school’s production of Carousel when she was a teenager). During my time as a sports editor I covered the 2014 World Cup for ESPN (my last assignment before I left the company) and spent the better part of a year at Fox Sports doing USMNT and Bundesliga coverage (picking up an additional rooting interest in Borussia Mönchengladbach), where I quickly learned that while I thought I was a superfan, my knowledge PALED in comparison with my producers.
All of this is to say that once someone is able to show you that you can be good at something, you tend to find ways to enjoy it. I didn’t like soccer when I was a loser stumbling over himself at recess, but when it turned out I could function as a keeper, it gave me a new perspective and love for it. It seems obvious, but you’d be amazed at how rare this sensation can be.
This lengthy anecdote is basically my way of justifying seeing Next Goal Wins, the latest film from Taika Waititi, based on the 2014 documentary of the same name. Now, fictional adaptations of non-fiction movies are rarely a good proposition. The only time I ever really liked one of these was Rescue Dawn, because it was Werner Herzog dramatizing his own documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, so his unrivaled storytelling skills were essential to both projects. That’s very much the exception that proves the rule set by flicks like Welcome to Marwen. And truth be told, there are plenty of faults to point out with this latest effort, mostly a complete lack of story structure, weird strings of references, and some jarring shifts in tone. That said, this is still funny and entertaining, and can resonate if you keep your focus on that moral. When you get proper support, even exercises in futility can be fun.
In 2001, while attempting to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, the American Samoa National Team suffered the most lopsided defeat in international football history, losing to Australia 31–0. A decade later, ranked as the worst team in the world by FIFA, the association’s administrator, Tavita (Oscar Kightley), is desperate for just a single goal from the team so that they will no longer be laughingstocks on the world stage. At the same time, Danish-born manager Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), has just been sacked by Team USA (he was coaching the Under 20 team that failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup), led by Alex Magnussen (Will Arnett) and Thomas’ estranged wife, Gail (Elisabeth Moss). Given no other options, Thomas is appointed to be the new manager for American Samoa, with only four weeks to prepare for the first qualification round for the 2014 competition.
Arriving at the distant U.S. territory, Rongen is distraught about the lack of facilities (a single field with only one ball and no training equipment), infrastructure (his house has no electricity and his cell phone gets no signal; he only receives voicemails from his daughter, voiced by Kaitlyn Dever), and talent from his players (many of whom are unfit and basically tumble about the pitch; I can relate). The most infuriating to Rongen is Jaiyah Saelua (played by mononym actress Kaimana), a fa’afafine — essentially the Samoan equivalent of transgender, identified as a distinct third sex in their culture. Jaiyah, the erstwhile captain of the squad and controlling full-back (meaning she orchestrates the defensive line), often shows up late for practice and spends most of the training period playing with her hair and preening for the others.
The film follows your standard “inspirational sports movie” formula, a fact that the movie itself is fairly aware of. References to the likes of The Karate Kid and Any Given Sunday abound, there are training montages on top of training montages, and conveniently-timed scenes show previous players like Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu) — the goalkeeper who let in those historic 31 scores against Australia — rejoin the team after saying they wouldn’t, because they all want their shot at redemption. We also have the budding rapport between Thomas and Jaiyah, who initially can’t stand each other but eventually come to an understanding based on mutual need and recognition of talent, culminating with Jaiyah leading the team out against Tonga, becoming the first openly trans athlete to ever play in a World Cup qualifier. The whole arc is exemplified by the team performing an uncoordinated Siva Tau (similar to a Haka) at the beginning of the picture before opening the Tonga match with an appropriately choreographed and intimidating one.
There are tons of things to pick apart with this, not the least of which is the underlying premise. American Samoa’s national team has historically been very low in the FIFA rankings, including a 37-game losing streak over the course of 28 years. That much is true, as was the 31–0 drubbing. However, there are several points in the film where Tavita stresses the need for just a single goal from the team, because even that has never happened. Except, yes, it has. When the team was formed in 1983, they scored in their first match and even won their second. Once they were accepted into FIFA and started playing competitive matches and World Cup qualifiers, they took a lot of hard losses, but they still scored the occasional goal. Hell, in the decade between the Australia match and the Tonga one that Rongen coaches, they scored in three different contest, including a 2006 WCQ loss to Vanuatu. So why add in such an easily debunked fake statistic? The worst loss ever and the 10-year losing streak got the point across about the team’s inefficacy just fine. You don’t need to oversell it.
One of the other major red flags (or cards, as it were), is in Thomas and Jaiyah’s initial interactions. When she first shows up, Rongen casually dismisses her, saying that this is the men’s team practice, not the women’s. He immediately and without hesitation recognizes her gender identity (at least as Europeans would understand it at the time), which is oddly progressive. Unfortunately, that also renders a later scene where he intentionally dead-names her as “Johnny” to rile her up utterly toothless, because both parties know he’s not really that reductive and transphobic. It’s just a moment for manufactured conflict. This is just one of several odd tonal choices Waititi makes in the film, including a bunch of goofy comedic moments (Waititi himself plays a fourth wall-breaking priest) contrasted with scenes of earnest cultural exploration, Tavita tying to manipulate Rongen into adopting a “tin can” mantra to “recycle” the players into something useful, and a major emotional twist late in the film that, while accurate, feels noticeably far too serious for everything else we’ve seen.
Then there’s the presentation of the climactic match against Tonga. It plays out rather traditionally for most of the game, but then suddenly the action stops and we fast forward to Tavita’s son, Daru (Beulah Koale) narrating a flashback of the final moments. Huh? After pretty much following a sports movie trope checklist for 95% of the action, now is when Waititi decides to buck a trend and try something different? There are times when it feels like he’s trying to use the film as a metaphor for the beautiful game itself, but then he inserts bits like this that make it look like a bunch of academy players scrambling against fucking Barcelona when they’re down to 10 men!
Like I said, you can tear this to shreds quite easily. It’s probably why the Rotten Tomatoes score is only 42%. Eventually the flaws just start piling up. But as previously mentioned, this is still a mild recommendation for me because in spite of everything wrong with it, it’s still undeniably fun. Fassbender, looking a younger, blonder Jeremy Irons, weirdly gives his all to what could easily be a phoned-in performance. Kaimana gives Jaiyah dimension and agency, rather than just being used as social justice sounding board. Tavita’s antics, while deeply weird, are endearing and just the right amount of silly. There are also several side gags that don’t really matter to the overall story, but still made me chuckle, like the fact that during a designated prayer time, the entire population literally stops whatever they’re doing and goes into something resembling a meditative state, or that the island’s most popular TV show (for this project, anyway) is called Who’s on the Plane?, where the host literally accosts people deboarding at the airport for impromptu interviews that go nowhere.
But most importantly, the way the team finds their legs comes when Rongen learns to treat them not as an elite group of professional Davids fighting Goliath, but as regular people having fun for the pride of their homeland. Once that realization dawns — with help from Jaiyah — his tactics shift (all good managers know the value of adapting to the game situation rather than imposing their will at all costs) and he concentrates on showing the players how to maximize their potential. That way, win or (very likely) lose, they can still go out there and do whatever it is they do with their heads held high.
Just like a doughy teenager finally being shown how to breathe while running and figuring out that he can react and judge a ball’s trajectory to make a save, finding out that you can be good at something makes it all the more tolerable, if not outright enjoyable. And this is a method that applies far beyond sports. Just to give another example from my own past, I used to work at a warehouse during summer breaks when I was in college. It was the next town over from mine, and I didn’t have a car, so I had to bike about seven miles each way. By the time I got to work, I was already exhausted, and spending eight hours on a shipping dock stacking heavy boxes was taking everything out of me, not to mention a fair amount of foot pain. Even though I pushed through as best as I could, I was easily the slowest member of my team. One day, my supervisor assigned me to handle the “bulk” packages, oddly shaped parcels that were sorted separately from the main pallets and added to the count at the end. I was given a small standing forklift and an alcove next to the main conveyer belts to handle the entire day’s load. I ended up being great at it, never straining myself, and upping my efficiency, to the point that this became my go-to assignment unless I was severely needed elsewhere. The supervisor admitted to me weeks later that he was on the brink of firing me for not keeping up, but then I became the “wizard” of the bulk stock, and the whole group dynamic improved.
So yes, it’s okay to suck at something. It’s fine if you’re not going to be the best. This film certainly isn’t. But its heart is in the right place, because it knows the idea isn’t to win, but to show that it still has value. In that respect, Taika Waititi succeeds. This is far from a great movie, but that might ultimately be the point. American Samoa is never going to win the World Cup. I’d be surprised if they ever even qualify, and that’s knowing that the next tournament — a three-way co-hosting effort between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — will expand from 32 teams to 48. But there are still the little victories to be had, and Next Goal Wins does capture that spirit in strange but funny ways that should leave a no-stakes smile on your face. You don’t have to conquer the world, but as long as you know that you can contribute to something positive, sometimes that’s enough.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How big of a soccer fan are you? Do you think you could score or save a goal if you absolutely had to? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!