Next Goal Wins Review: The Team's Rubbish But The Film's Brilliant

In 17 years, American Samoa had scored only twice. And now, the qualification campaign for the 2014 beckons. (They don't qualify but that doesn't matter)
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This is perhaps the perfect time for Next Goal Wins to be released on DVD. Football is swirling around in the midst of a whole load of murk and greed and arrogance. Such is the general dissatisfaction with a game large numbers of us are nonetheless still obsessed with that a film that strips it all back to a reminder of what a simple game can be would be embraced. Next Goal Wins is that film.

The documentary follows the efforts of the national team from the tiny Pacific island of American Samoa to pick up the pieces after suffering a world record 31-0 defeat in a World Cup qualifier against Australia. Ten years on, the team is rooted at the bottom of the world rankings. In 17 years, American Samoa had scored only twice. And now, the qualification campaign for the 2014 beckons.

The Hollywood script version of the story would have had the hapless Pacific Islanders qualifying for a dream trip to the finals in Brazil, only to lose the final against a cynical bunch of European automatons, complete with guest appearance from Sepp Blatter as the champion of the rights of small nations. Thankfully, the true story is far more engaging.

American Samoa do not, as sharp-eyed football fan readers will have worked out, qualify for the World Cup finals. In fact, they don’t get anywhere near. And it will not spoil the film for you to know that. Because what makes this such uplifting, life-affirming viewing are the definitions of winning and achievement that unfold as we watch.

The players have no grand ideas about themselves. What they do have is a strong sense of pride that manifests itself in a desire to improve themselves, rather than a need to do others down. To score a goal, to move up the rankings just a little, to play as a team and be satisfied with their efforts – small victories are central to this story.

There are characters aplenty. There’s goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, destined to be forever haunted by the memory of those 31 balls hitting the back of his net, who comes out of retirement to face his demons and help the team. Just to play that game again and keep it down to 10, he says, would be worth it. There’s Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, drafted in to knock the team into shape, and whose idiosyncratic personal approach is rooted in deep personal sadness. And there’s Jaiyah, the world’s first professional transgender footballer, whose combination of grace, confidence and grit holds the eye in every scene.

The film is beautifully told. There are no production histrionics, directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison and producer Kristian Brodie opting instead to let the story tell itself. The cinematography fully captures the splendour of the island while unobtrusively highlighting the details of life there.

What’s particularly impressive is that the islanders’ approach to life is not portrayed with the sort of condescension we often see when filmmakers discover a set of attitudes at odds with the modern Western mainstream. Definitions of pride, honour, achievement and community appear all the more value because of their lack of complication.

In particular, the story of the team’s acceptance of Jaiyah is a real eye-opener when compared with the clunking ‘Look Everyone, We Are Being Anti-Discriminatory’ approach so popular in some quarters.

None of this should give you the impression that this is all too deep and meaningful to be thoroughly enjoyed. I watched it with my kids, 9 and 13, and they thought it was great. Humanity is attractive when it’s decent, it seems.

If you want to feel better about football, to be reminded of why it is you like it so much, you really must see this film. It’s up there with the best films about sport, not just football. A warm, funny, engaging, inspirational and at times moving film with a cast of characters you’ll love and a setting that will take your breath away.

Next Goal Wins is out on DVD on 1 September.

Martin Cloake’s latest book, Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars, is out now.