Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Film Review: Next Goal Wins (2014)

Disclaimer alert: I have only recently become interested in football. Even worse, I'm one of those people who only cares about the World Cup and bugs my friends with recently learned opinions and shallow analysis. I also (like most casual sports fans) prefer an underdog over a dominating talented team - and there is no bigger underdog than the American Samoa football team... 

At the beginning of Next Goal Wins, the tiny pacific island of American Samoa have never won a official football match and are bottom of the FIFA ranking list. They also suffered the worst defeat in football history in 2001 by losing 31-0 to Australia. Yet, they are determined to prove themselves on the world stage, and with the help of despairing Dutch coach Thomas Rongen (the only applicant) they are training for gruelling qualifications to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  Yet as a American Samoan official states early on  'When no-one thinks you're good. That's what makes you dangerous...'

As is always the case with thoughtful documentaries, Soccer is only the surface content for a whole host of more interesting themes and insights.  The island is only 200km in size and the population is around 57,000, this means that the players have to take time out of their football practice in order to work as teachers, work in kitchens, volunteer, or take part in tsunami evacuation training.  Life in the country is represented as idyllic and communal held together with an island-mentality and deep religiosity, a kind of paradise. Yet there is still this deep rooted desire to make an impact on the world stage - especially from the obsessive coach Rongen. 

The most interesting player is transgender Jaiyah Saelua, or what's known in Samoa as a fa'afafine - a third gender in between Male and Female. She claims that off the pitch she acts feminine as a "diva", but turns this all off once the whistle blows so that she can prove her skills on the pitch.  Her absolute acceptance by the players and the fans is beyond refreshing seeing how impossible it is (apparently) to come out as LGBT and play professional football on the world stage.

The ability of the editing and music to shape your interpretations of moments during the games is such an emotional pleasure.  Broadcast footage of football is romanticised enough already, but Next Goal Wins turns low-profile games that the rest of the world ignored and paints them as a series of euphoric and cataclysmic moments that matter to those involved more than anything else in their lives.  

Football is used as a means to prove integrity over ability, resilience over dominance and solidarity over victory.  And watching them becoming 'no longer the worst team in the world' is more satisfying than any team lifting an actual trophy...

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