Becoming better people

Becoming better people

If you saw the award-winning Hoop Dreams back in 1994, or any of the other touching reality-based underdog sports movies from Hoosiers and Miracle to Cinderella Man, Sea Biscuit, Boxer, Remember the Titans and Moneyball,  you might feel you can miss Next Goal Wins, a sports documentary that puts underachievement in a totally new light. Miss this gem at your peril, however, for if it does not put failure in a new perspective, it will provide an entertaining and inspirational 92 minutes trying.

Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s documentary is worth seeing just for a geography lesson alone, as the tiny Pacific island of American Samoa is about as low profile as its amateur football team. In fact, the team is best known for its 31-0 defeat against Australia in 2001, a humiliation that goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, who emigrated to Seattle, can never live down.

The American Samoan team is not only at the bottom of FIFA’s rankings, but has only scored twice in seventeen years. Something needed to be done with the 1914 World Cup in Brazil looming, even if it meant breaking the bank for a coach on a short-term contract.  Only one person responded to the advertisement, and he would hardly have been the team’s first choice. Thomas  Rongen is a rugged, fit, silver-haired 60-something Dutch coach who played alongside George Best in his heyday, but has spent years haunted by the death of his only child, an 18-year-old step daughter killed in a cash crash.

After we meet the team and learn that they all juggle full time jobs, high costs of living, and the costs of destructive tsunamis with the demands of unpaid football practice, Brett and Jamison wisely structure their film around three of the most interesting players in the story: coach Rongen, Goalkeeper Salapu, and Defender Jaiyah Saelua. Still haunted by the 31-0 loss to Australia, Salapu returns for the qualifiers for, in fairness, he prevented more balls from entering the goal than he allowed in.  Defender Jaiyah’s place in the squad is even more surprising as she is a member of Samoa’s third gender (called the fa’fafine).

Although Jaiyah suffers discrimination at the University of Hawaii where she studies dance, she is accepted by the team in the locker room and on the pitch. When it comes to selection for the qualifiers, Rongen isn’t bothered by the fact that Jaiyah combines her pre-match warm-up with the application of make-up and hair curling. He not only recognises her talent on the pitch but realises that the inner strength she needs to function in a prejudiced world is exactly what an underdog team needs.

When Rongen first arrives in American Samoa it does not look like he’ll survive the month he is given to turn the team around.  He is completely despondent at the team’s lack of physical fitness and tactical knowledge. Moreover, he’s a chain-smoking, avowed atheist in a very religious community and his abrasive style and confrontational approach to authority is not what the team or management are used to.  What makes Next Goal Wins so moving is our realisation that if the team needs a motivator and disciplinarian like Rongen he needs them just as much.

It is a matter of record (if a spoiler of sorts) that American Samoa do not make it to The World Cup, but under Rongen they experience a measure of success that proves that everything really is relative.  The experience has strengthened the team’s resolve and its future. As Rongen says goodbye to his team, he takes away something worth more than all the goals in the world:

‘There’s a strong correlation between losing a child and gaining 23 other children,’ he reflects, referring to the trusting, resilient squad of American Samoan players.  ‘The last time I cried was at her [step daughter’s] funeral. I haven’t cried since, so I think the fact that I did cry here a few times… I’m not healed, but I’ve become a better person with the help of this island.’

So instead of taking your children or grandchildren to the next X-Men film or to a local football game, take them to see Next Goal Wins.  It has the capacity to make us all better players, if not better people.

Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer