It’s hard not to assume that the higher you travel up football’s pyramid of power, the more unpleasant the air must taste. Reach its summit, and I’ve every confidence that proximity to Sepp Blatter would be more punishing a test of the human gag reflex than repeatedly inhaling the portaloo fug beneath an IBS sufferer’s duvet.
Thankfully, sports commercial veterans Mike Brett and Steve Jamison chose to film their feature documentary debut some 10 thousand glorious miles from Blatter’s belching flue, charting the epic misfortunes of American Samoa’s national football team (the worst on earth, according to FIFA rankings) as they embarked on a seemingly futile quest to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The pair’s efforts were duly rewarded, returning from the Polynesian paradise with 'Next Goal Wins', a beautiful and profoundly affecting piece of film-making that may not have the power to cleanse football’s soul, but will at least remind the world it has one.
Serving no apparent purpose other than to make the likes of Bhutan and San Marino feel better about themselves, the tiny American protectorate of American Samoa boasted a team so apocalyptically ill-equipped for international competition they barely threatened to score a goal, much less prevail in sporting combat; the array of inadequate specimens they called a playing staff doing their utmost to retain their ‘worst on earth’ accolade by losing 31-nil to Australia in 2001, a world record that instantly raised their status from Anonymous Footnote to Global Laughing Stock. Fast forward to 2011, and nothing has changed.
Self-esteem already in abysmal freefall, a defeatist mindset happy to see an eight-nil drubbing as progress is offering the team little hope of improvement. Something has to give. And this is where 'Next Goal Wins' comes to life.
Employing a deft touch and tenderness not immediately apparent in a synopsis that could so easily have birthed a mean-spirited exercise in big screen ridicule, Brett and Jamison unearth something very special indeed - and what follows can most succinctly be described as 'life-affirming'.
With World Cup qualification looming (“when you’re bottom of the rankings, you have to start qualification three years before the event itself,” explains Jamison), Tavita Taumua, the American Samoa football federation's beleaguered General Secretary, puts out a desperate SOS for professional help. Only one man answers: not a white knight on a charger, but a slightly unstable Dutchman in a light aircraft. Enter Thomas Rongen, a veteran MLS coach loaned by US Soccer, and a man who hasn’t come here for a holiday.
Every inch Hollywood’s hired-gun archetype, all mystery, magnetism and hope, Rongen could well have wandered off the set of a John Sturges western, we just don’t know. What we do know is this man is Steve McQueen in a tracksuit; he’s Lee Van Cleef with some two-touch passing drills. And where he came from is no longer important, it’s where he’s going that matters. Well, that and whether he knows how to slide tackle properly.
An instantly sympathetic screen presence, Rongen’s enthusiasm and belief in what he does could capture the heart of unrepentant war criminals. A hunch given further weight during a scene of raw revelation as moving as it is unexpected – a moment of rare vulnerability that endears us only further to his cause.
Now, the less you know of Rongen and the team’s ensuing fate the more rewarding the film will be, so I’m going to stop typing. Suffice to say, their story’s real strength is its universal resonance – in much the same way you didn’t need an in-depth understanding of gear ratio to be touched by 'Senna', you don’t need to know your De Boers from your Van der Kerkhofs to be moved to tears by 'Next Goal Wins'. (And make no mistake, this film stands shoulder to shoulder with Senna in every way other than budget.)
Besides, this isn’t really a film about football. It’s a hymn to the human spirit enduring in the face of adversity; exorcism and redemption; overcoming natural disaster and devastating personal tragedy; healing and brotherhood; inclusion, belief, determination, honesty, humility, loyalty and more than anything else, it’s about the goal-line heroics of a transgender centre back.
Danny Blanchflower was right: football is all about glory. But you find it in the strangest of places.