In any competition, one team is ultimately the best. But there’s always one that’s the worst. And if there’s one FIFA soccer team in that latter category, it’s the American Samoan team.
In 1998, American Samoa—an American island territory in the South Pacific—became a member of FIFA. Theoretically, that meant the team could qualify for the World Cup. In reality, that was never really a possibility. During a 2001 qualifying match against Australia, for instance, American Samoa lost 31-0—the worst loss ever recorded in an international match. In fact, by 2011, the team had never won a single game within the Federation.
So in 2011, the team hires on Thomas Rongen, a down-on-his-luck ex-player and coach. He’s told that his options are either to coach the American Samoan team or to become unemployed.
“I can’t believe you’d do this to me,” Thomas laments, acting as if coaching the American Samoan team is like being given the death penalty.
Because to him, it is. Thomas likes winning—even if his previous track record never provided much of that. And being sent to coach the world’s worst soccer team isn’t going to help his chances either.
But Tavita, the president of Football Federation American Samoa, tells Thomas that he doesn’t care if the team wins or loses.
“All I want from our team is just one goal,” Tavita says.
Still, it would be really nice to win a game.
Virtually everyone Thomas meets in American Samoa is joyful. They’re people who don’t allow negative circumstances to dominate their attitude. Meanwhile, Thomas is pretty much the opposite. He’s quite bitter, and he allows any small issue to completely ruin his day.
The joyful attitude of the American Samoan people is what makes the team unbothered by their years of losses. They don’t see joy as something that is contingent upon winning a match. And while Thomas sees those losses as an embarrassment, the team refuses to compromise or adapt their cultural or religious practices just to have more time to prepare.
“We will not deny who we are just to win,” Tavita says.
But Thomas equates joy with winning. He doesn’t see soccer as a fun game to be played but as a competition to be won. Eventually, however, he realizes that he should focus on learning how to be happy again. And when one player tells Thomas that he’d like to win, Thomas responds that the way to win is by being happy—by experiencing the joy of playing the game regardless of the outcome.
It should likewise be noted that, despite Thomas’ angry attitude, the people on the island still treat him with patient kindness.
The American Samoan religious lifestyle is respected in the film rather than made the subject of jokes. Thomas learns a lot about it, as well as the island’s culture. And as Thomas begins to adapt to the culture, we see him becoming more open to the Christian faith, too.
We’re told that American Samoans are deeply religious. In the evening each day, bells ring around the island to initiate “Sa,” an evening curfew where villagers take 10 to 20 minutes to pray. We witness Thomas’ confusion when everyone around him begins to do just that.
The team prays together and sings a song of praise to God. When Thomas storms off, the team prays that he would return; when he does not immediately come back, one of them says, “Alright, that didn’t work.”
A priest wears robes that depict Mary crowned with stars (a Catholic interpretation of Revelation 12:1), and he preaches on Matthew 17. The priest also compares the American Samoa soccer team’s upcoming match to the biblical story of David and Goliath.
Thomas isn’t religious, and he has a blunt ire for faith, too. When someone references going to church, he responds that soccer is church. And in an interview, Thomas says “I’m not God, but I may as well be, since I perform more miracles than Him.” He’s frustrated when he hears that the team won’t miss church to practice on Sunday, since doing so “would be a sin.” Later in the film, Thomas attends a Catholic church service.
A store sells dreamcatchers. A woman tricks Thomas into giving the soccer team a second chance by telling him a story about tin cans. She says that white people love hollow spirituality, which is why so many of them flock to yoga. When someone quickly drives past, a man shouts, “Slow down, heaven’s full!” A man crosses himself. Thomas’ home contains a depiction of Jesus holding a microphone. Thomas mishears one player’s name as Samson, and he asks if he was named that because of his long hair.
Thomas and Tavita talk to each other through “prayer”: Thomas announces some news to the team by pretending to pray to God while talking about it; Tavita responds in kind. Each of them begin their sentences with “Lord.” This goes on for some time.
A subplot centers around a player named Jaiyah, who is described as a fa’afafine (literally: “in the manner of a woman”), someone from American Samoa who is biologically male but is “culturally identified” as a woman.
We’re told that the player’s birth name is Johnny, and everyone other than Thomas supports the player’s transgender identity (while Thomas eventually comes around to it). One man even says that the fa’afafine are the flowers of the American Samoa that give the island its beauty. This player is also seen taking hormonal treatments. We hear a conversation about which “parts” the player has.
Tavita takes a bet that he will have “lady boobs” drawn on his face if the American Samoan team doesn’t score a goal. They don’t, and for the next few scenes, Tavita’s face is covered in Sharpie drawings of breasts. Tavita’s wife tells him to clean it up quickly, since “drawings of boobs are a gateway to the real thing.”
A couple of Thomas’ former colleagues greet him by pressing around him and thrusting their hips at him, much to Thomas’ discomfort. Many of the players are seen shirtless during practice. A man and woman kiss.
A man sitting in the background of a medical tent has what looks to be a knife sticking out of his side, and his white shirt is covered in blood. A prospective soccer player gets hit by a bus. Someone suffers from heat stroke, and another man faints after a tough workout. One player forcefully pushes Thomas to the ground. Someone is hit with a soccer ball. We’re told that someone died in a car crash.
Someone uses stories of putting dogs down as a metaphor to make a point. We hear how he ended the dogs’ lives, one by drowning, one by shooting.
The f-word is used once, and the s-word is used nearly 20 times. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—,” “p-ss” and “crap.” God’s name is used in vain five times. Jesus’ name is misused three times. We see a couple of crude hand gestures.
Characters drink alcohol. Thomas drinks while he drives faster than the speed limit. At one point, he appears intoxicated.
Thomas throws things when he’s frustrated, though he gradually gets his temper under control throughout the film. One player says that there’s something wrong with Thomas, and another responds that it’s because Thomas is white.
A season of losses can be discouraging. A decade of losses is devastating.
But that’s part of what makes the American Samoa soccer team so inspiring. Despite experiencing nothing but loss after loss, the team never gave up. They enjoyed simply playing soccer, while winning was optional.
At the same time, Next Goal Wins doesn’t tell a story you haven’t heard before. It’s still the standard sports movie about a jaded coach who is forced to train a team of underdogs and who eventually comes to appreciate the team for its people rather than its performance. Overall, it’s mediocre at best.
But what does merit mentioning are a couple of concerns that you’ll want to be aware before viewing. The film’s secondary plot centers on a transgender character who plays on the team (which, in fairness, is true to the actual history the film upon which it is based). And the frequent, sometimes surprisingly strong foul language in this would-be inspirational sports flick is really disappointing, too.
Taika Waititi’s newest release seems like a perfect vehicle for his style of comedy. But while some jokes will land with the audience, the film doesn’t fully deliver in ways that previous Waititi (or even just sports comedies) have.
Would it be too much to call that another loss for this team?
Kennedy Unthank studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He knew he wanted to write for a living when he won a contest for “best fantasy story” while in the 4th grade. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that he was the only person to submit a story. Regardless, the seed was planted. Kennedy collects and plays board games in his free time, and he loves to talk about biblical apologetics. He doesn’t think the ending of Lost was “that bad.”