On April 11th 2001, a qualifying match for the 2002 FIFA World Cup saw the American Samoa men’s national team lose 31-0 to Australia, yet another in a cruel streak of 30 straight defeats since their first international in 1994. The result remains a world record. Having conceded 57 without scoring a single goal in their 4 qualifying matches, American Samoa found themselves bottom of the FIFA World Rankings.
When directors Mike Brett and Steve Jameson, friends from Cambridge University, and their producer Kristian Brodie arrive in American Samoa, they find a team still very much carrying the burden of that world record defeat. The team, now led by Seattle-based Larry Mana’o, head to the 2011 South Pacific Games in New Caledonia, with similarly bleak results; 5 games, 5 defeats, zero goals scored, and 26 conceded. The island’s football federation contact the US for help.
Enter Thomas Rongen. The sole applicant to the job listing, the former MLS and USA U20s coach cuts a tough but charismatic figure upon his arrival and is quick to make an impression. Rongen, who played at Ajax, as well as alongside George Best and Johan Cruyff at the LA Aztecs, finds a problem far beyond playing ability, fitness and morale. His research leads him to several American Samoan expatriates who have left the island for America, or joined the military; an increasingly common choice for teenagers in a population with a 25% unemployment rate. Initially clashing with the island’s football federation staff over his players attending church during his scheduled training days (98% of the island’s population is Christian), Rongen becomes increasingly engrained in the culture of his players and, along the way, shares revelations of his own past which he has carried with him.
Rongen also recalls Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper who conceded those 31 goals back in 2001. A shop worker in Seattle, throughout the film Salapu typifies the spirit of the squad; they play for the love of football, and of their country. No better example of this comes when the subject turns to the tsunami that hit the island in 2009. The following morning, with the community still reeling from the event, the team returned to their waterlogged pitch to begin the clear-up and play football. Having been granted an opportunity to shed his demons, Salapu’s commitment is often a key point that Rongen reiterates to his players.
The idea of the team as a family is one that is both encouraged by Rongen and beautifully caught by the filmmakers. In this respect, the film gains a key figure and, in many ways, its star in defender Jaiyah Saelua, a member of the island’s Fa’afafine. A third gender integral to traditional American Samoan culture, the prefix “Fa’a” loosely translates as “in the spirit of” and “fafine” as “woman” – in other words, born male but living as a woman. Though admitting herself that she “runs like a girl”, Saelua comes to represent the strong and determined character of her team. Jaiyah’s inclusion in the squad’s World Cup Qualifying campaign makes her the first ever transgender national football player and, when pressed on the wider issue of acceptance in football, offers simply; “when I’m on the field I am a football player.”
Not having personally known the results of the team’s World Cup Qualifying matches, the documentary builds expertly to its emotionally draining finale (you’ll no doubt be left anticipating the team’s future exploits at the 2018 qualifiers!).
Brett, Jamison and Brodie have crafted a film that doesn’t exclusively play to football fans. Next Goal Wins shows what makes the beautiful game so beautiful.