There are more than a few elements of a typical sports story in Next Goal Wins, then, but as rise of the underdog stories go this is as satisfying as they come. Initially the team’s football skills (or lack thereof) is a source of constant amusement. However, even before the film gives us a deeper focus on some of its central players (more on that later), the passion and sheer joy on display makes American Samoa a team that’s easy to get behind and root for.
It’s all well put together by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison too; the first-time directors capture many intimate moments without once being intrusive, and time is also taken to introduce us to the island’s scenery and culture. A scene where Rongen climbs a mountain is quietly breathtaking, whilst the importance of religion does not go understated.
Of the film’s many stars, it’s Rongen who shines brightest. Initially a strict taskmaster – a shock to the system for the team – he is an engaging presence throughout, even more so once his touching motivations have been revealed. Over the course of his one month stay, both Rongen and the team change for the better, off the pitch and on.
Alongside Rongen is a host of colourful characters. Goalkeeper Nicky Salupu – still haunted by that Australian trouncing in 2001 – gives the film an emotional touchstone, but the standout is easily Jaiyah Saelua. A transgender player who is part of American Samoa’s third gender termed the Fa’afafine, she is wholeheartedly accepted by the team and eventually earns her place in the starting 11. This truly is a crowd pleaser in every sense of the word, you certainly don’t have to be a fan of the beautiful game to enjoy this feel-good documentary.