The world’s worst international soccer team — and its dogged attempts to haul itself up from the bottom of the global rankings — provide a wildly engaging subject in the crowdpleasing documentary “Next Goal Wins.” The elements here could hardly be more satisfying had they been devised by the most brazen TV showrunner: laughter, tears, a tragic backstory, an underdog saga and the novelty of the first international transgender player. Only the disappointing commercial performance of earlier soccer-themed docus threatens to subdue goalmouth celebrations as this British production gears up for its first date with paying audiences in the U.K.
The film begins during the early qualifying rounds for the FIFA 2014 World Cup. The national soccer team from the tiny island of American Samoa has hit rock bottom: It hasn’t won in 17 years, during which time it’s given up 229 goals and scored only two, and its 31-to-0 trouncing by Australia in 2001 remains the worst defeat ever seen at an international soccer match. As the “Next Goal Wins” crew arrives in 2011 (led by London-based commercials directors Steve Jamison and Mike Brett, making their feature helming debut), hopes rise as American Samoa prepares to compete in the Pacific Games in New Caledonia. But five straight losses and 26 conceded goals confirm that passion and enthusiasm alone are not going to cut it at the international level.
Potential salvation comes in the unlikely form of Thomas Rongen, a Dutch-born force of nature who responds to a plea by the U.S. Soccer Federation for a professional coach to commit for one month and give the team a fighting chance. Although the window is too brief for Rongen to have much of an impact, with training sessions worked in around the non-professional athletes’ day jobs, the focus on achievable tactics, fitness and a more organized defense offer a glimmer of optimism, as does the savvy decision to recruit a couple of non-islanders of American Samoan heritage. And as the playground cry of the film’s title suggests, a goal, any goal, would constitute a victory.
So far, so many entertaining underdog antics. At the halfway point, the film reaches for — and achieves — a deeper emotional undertow as Rongen tells the team about his own reasons for taking the assignment, and the scars left by the death eight years prior of his 18-year-old daughter in an auto accident. “We’re doing it for Nicole,” offers Rongen’s supportive wife, Gail. The film then nimbly shifts to focus on lithe defender Jaiyah Saelua, a performing arts student and member of Samoa’s third gender, the fa’fafine (way of the woman). No sports film is short on pep talks, bonding sessions and heartfelt analogies to family kinship, but the teammates’ easy acceptance of Saelua — and her robust performance on the pitch — give the proceedings an extra kick. Pic’s other primary emotional-access point is goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, who returns from his day job in Seattle hoping to banish the demons unleashed by that humiliating Australian goal rush.
A human-interest film likely to entertain even viewers who don’t typically watch sports docs, “Next Goal Wins” faces the challenge of getting past the soccer label without alienating its core niche. Distributors able and willing to take advantage of star assets Rongen and Saelua (both flew in for the London premiere) will be best positioned to score. Ticketbuyers will be rewarded by a warmly uplifting tale, elevated by a guitar-driven score that amplifies emotion along the way. Shot on the ultra high-definition Red Epic-M, the images show real flair, exploiting dramatic locations for a sense of cinematic scale, while catching intimate closeups at key dramatic moments.
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