The Film: 4/5
The story of the American Samoa soccer team's physically (and emotionally) straining climb from the bottom of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association's rankings to qualifying for competition in the World Cup is the stuff from which inspirational sports films are made. But before Hollywood could snap up this uplifting true life tale for adaptation into a big-budget dramatic spectacle documentary filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison beat them to the punch by chronicling the team's journey beginning with their latest bitter defeat and concluding with unexpected but well-earned triumph in the recent film festival favorite Next Goal Wins.
After suffering a mind-blowing 31-0 defeat at the hands of the Australian team on April 11, 2001 and losing nearly every match since, the American Samoan team decided to get whipped into prime fighting shape to quality for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Numerous attempts to become a winning team fail until they bring in a Dutch-born coach currently based in the U.S. by the name of Thomas Rongen. Under his consistent and unforgiving tutelage the American Samoan soccer team's fortunes undergo an epic reversal and the end result is a team that actually wins matches and is no longer dead last on the FIFA list of the world's soccer teams.
It's hard to dislike Next Goal Wins because it's genuinely inspirational and made with intelligence and humanity. This is not a film designed to jerk tears from your cynicism-sealed ducts, but you might find yourself misting up every once in a while. The story of the American Samoa soccer team's rise from worst to not-so-worst is made endlessly watchable and entertaining through Brett and Jamison's sharp direction that places the personalities of each member of the team and their hard-ass Dutch coach above the soccer action, which is shot with energy and immediacy by the directors doubling as their own cinematographers and edited into lean montages by Julian Quantrill.
Rongen is an interesting character, good at what he does and unafraid to be bluntly honest and vulgar with the last place team he has been charged with turning into a pack of formidable soccer players. The individual members of the team are portrayed as human beings first and foremost in scenes where we see them interacting with their friends and family, going about their daily lives, immersing themselves in the culture of their native homeland, and attending religious services. Soccer means something to these people, but it doesn't mean everything. The most fascinating of the players is Jaiyah Saelua, who was born male but has grown to identify as "Fa'afafine", the third-gendered people of Samoa that commonly exhibit feminine traits. As the first transsexual player on a FIFA qualifying team Jaiyah has a few more hurdles to clear than her teammates, but they accept her as one of their own and it's a real pleasure to watch her and the others emerge triumphant in the end.
The American Samoan players are presented to us as decent people who didn't fall into last place due to their lack of skill on the soccer field or their overabundance of naivete. Next Goal Wins is the story of how they wanted nothing more than to be respected by their peers and victorious at what they have worked their very best for most of their lives. It's an old story, one where you can see the ending coming the moment the movie begins, but it's a story that never gets old when the people competing deserve to know for once the sensation of winning against every imaginable odd.
Next Goal Wins is presented in widescreen with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track for accompaniment on this DVD. The film was shot in 5K resolution with a RED Epic camera that captures the lush American Samoan scenery with stunning clarity and color. Details are sharp and plentiful. The 5.1 track does a fantastic job with no audio distortion and ample breathing room given to the rousing music score, rich ambient effects, and the various conversation scenes. No subtitles have been included.
The only extra is a trailer (3 minutes).
Next Goal Wins is a terrific sports documentary and a rousing underdog success story beautifully made with respect for the players and the lives they lead on and off the field. You might be able to figure out how the story ends, but that won't stop you from enjoying the journey leading up to the inevitable optimistic conclusion. Highly recommended.