Conventional but still enjoyable, Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins presents the real story of the American Samoa football team, who had broken the record for worst-ever loss in the history of the World Cup qualifiers, with a 31-0 defeat against Australia. To have your name in the history books is one thing, but to be eternally associated with the biggest humiliation there is in the world of soccer is another.
It’s a defeat that has made the team legendary in a way, having placed 204th in the list of the 204 soccer teams in the world, a ranking that has made it long ridiculed both at home and abroad. But the people on the island, American Samoa is after all a small population of only 45,000, have long remained passionate about soccer, holding hope year after year that, perhaps one day, their team could finally score at least one goal and change its fortunes.
The story made perfect sense for Waititi to adapt it into a film. Reminiscent of his earlier works, particularly Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the film carries his brand of comedy, perhaps to a fault, and boasts enough charm, pitch-perfect performances and breezy pace that will boost the picture’s commercial prospects when it hits theaters later this year. Accessible, entertaining and straightforward, this is a film without artistic ambition, a traditional sports comedy that seeks to simply offer a fun time at the movies, with an underlying emotional message about what it means to realize you’re an underdog – and to embrace it.
Following the historic defeat against Australia, the American Samoa Football Federation realizes it’s time to change coaches, if the local football team has any hope to ever qualify for the World Cup. The mission – hiring a new coach – might seem easy but no one is willing to take the job. Enter Dutch-American manager Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) who hesitantly accepts the job as he seeks to prep the team for a qualifying run for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Rongen’s task won’t be easy, however, as the team suffers serious morale issues as well as physical challenges that render them practically impossible to train at first. But as Rongen spends more time on the island, he starts to understand the culture and go under the skin of his players to fully grasp the task at hand.
Among the members of the team is Jaiyah Saelua (wonderfully played by Kaimana), the first transgender football player to play in a men’s World Cup qualifier. Initially unwelcomed by Rongen, who the film shows skeptical of how the player could fit in a men’s team, Jaiyah – who was undergoing hormonal treatment and had not transitioned to a woman at the time of training – helps Rongen understand the players he’s supposed to manage, allowing to see their true nature beyond the football field.
After a series of disappointing training sessions that leaves Rongen on the verge of giving up, Jaiyah decides to help Rongen make vital additions to the team, enlisting older players who were part of the historic 31-0 loss. It’s a smart move, one that helps offer a redemptive opportunity to those players with bruised morale, some of whom had retired from football and abandoned the field altogether.
Unlike the 2014 documentary, which had captured Rongen’s journey with the team, Waititi dedicates a good portion of the runtime on the dynamic between Rongen and Jaiyah. The relationship moves on from skepticism to arguably emotional abuse, as Rongen calls Jaiyah by their male birth-name in a brutal attempt to channel the player’s anger into proving their worth on the field, on to growing trust as Rongen realizes Jaiyah’s incredible leadership potential. Only when Rongen was able to truly see his players for who they really are and not what they seem, was he successful in allowing them to realize their potential and, more importantly, enjoy the game. Their mere existence on the field was worthy of celebration – not the eventual score. Win or lose, they already had each other: a coherent team where love, acceptance and determination all co-exist.
Michael Fassbender delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Rongen, a man whose own personal tragedy has much influenced his career choices. He adds vulnerability, charm and power to the role, anchoring the film with a performance that blends perfectly with the colorful characters of his players.
Perhaps one of the film’s biggest assets is the characterization of the players – Waititi is able to make us root for and connect with each of the team members, and despite a limited runtime, get to know them on a more personal level as we witness their struggles and, entertainingly, their witty sense of humor. And while the film isn’t too keen to offer any sort of thoughtful commentary beyond the story at hand, the final half hour manages to pull at our heartstrings, as we watch Rongen bare his soul to his players and fully get invested in their success. It’s a journey that we, as audiences, find ourselves somewhat invested in, too, even though we can’t shake off the feeling that we’ve seen this story too many times to feel impressed or intrigued.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release Next Goal Wins only in theaters on November 17.