Fittingly after 13 years, 13 being the number of goals Australia’s Archie Thompson scored that night, the film Next Goal Wins has arrived, telling us the story of the American Samoan Men’s National Team.
Next Goal Wins is not your typical football movie, yes, there’s plenty of soccer in it, but it’s a true movie in its own right, with characters like goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, defender Jaiyah Saelua and head coach Thomas Rongen all serving as major characters, who all show development in their own personal character, just like any Hollywood hit would need.
It’s clear that the 31-0 match still scars football in American Samoa, certainly at the beginning of the film, Next Goal Wins takes you on a thrilling journey of growth not just in football but in the lives of these players.
Most notably in Nicky Salapu, who was the goalkeeper on that night, still holding scars from the match, he dreams of going back to that day “I wish I could go back and play Australia,” says Salapu, “I just want to prove we’re not the same team any more.”
Unfortunately at the start of the film, that seems a long way away, we see the challenge of amateurism, with even the coaches not able to devote their full time to the team, and working largely as volunteers.
But the pride of this team instantly warms you to them, they love soccer, and they love American Samoa, perhaps the biggest sign of this is from their reserve keeper, who speaking of Salapu says “I learn from Nicky, he’s the best.”
It is this warmth that you have that makes it so devastating when you see how little change has occurred, you are shattered for Salapu at the South Pacific games which was his last ever match for American Samoa, with the commentator saying, “I hope that somebody recognizes this man’s contribution to history.” As Salapu retires shattered.
But it is here that change arrives as the Dutch-American coach, Thomas Rongen arrives as the only applicant for an advert the US Soccer Federation puts out looking for an American Samoa head coaching job.
Rongen arrives and there’s plenty of butting of heads as Rongen tries to bring a professionalism that is so far lacking from the American Samoa National Team.
The tensions fly as Rongen struggles with the style in American Samoa and even threatens to walk out on the team at one point, and such is your attachment to this team you are shattered.
It is under Rongen’s tutellage that another star of the film comes forward as Jaiyah Saeluah starts to become a main character. Saeluah is a transgendered athlete, a part of Samoa’s Fa’afine, the third gender that is common in Samoa.
In Saeluah, Rongen sees a symbol of American Samoa, “She encapsulates what this is all about,” he says. “It’s for the love of the game, gender, race, all of that doesn’t really matter.” But this isn’t where Rongen starts out, struggling to find a place for Saeluah in the team despite her raw talent.
It is in Saeluah and Rongen’s statement that this movie is more than just about football, and Saeluah really does come to be a symbol in the film of how we grow as an audience alongside Rongen in our appreciation for these players.
Obviously, American Samoa aren’t in the World Cup, but how they go in this tournament is something you will need to see the movie for.
Next Goal Wins takes you on a remarkable journey as you fall in love with this team, you ride the highs and the lows. By the end of this movie you will be a fan of the American Samoan Men’s National Team.
Next Goal Wins is the best football film in decades, if you're a fan of football, or soccer, you owe it to yourself to see this film.
Next Goal Wins opens in theaters throughout America on April 25th, a screening is currently being organized for San Antonio.