You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Next Goal Wins’

A genial documentary crowdpleaser about the world's worst international soccer team.

Thomas Rongen, Larry Mana'O, Jaiyah Saelua, Nicky Salapu, Tavita Taumua, Liatama Amisone Jr., Rawlston Masaniai, Ramin Ott, Gail Rongen, D'Angelo Herrera. (English, Samoan dialogue)

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.

POPULAR ON VARIETY: Jeff Bridges revives ‘The Dude’ to honor John Goodman

Film Review: 'Next Goal Wins'

Reviewed at Hackney Picturehouse, London, May 1, 2014. (In Tribeca Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.  

Production: (Documentary – U.K.) An Icon release of a K5 Intl. presentation of an Agile Films and Archer's Mark production. (International sales: K5 Intl.) Produced by Kristian Brodie, Mike Brett, Steve Jamison. Executive producers, Myles Payne, David Staniland.

Crew: Directed by Mike Brett, Steve Jamison. Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Sean Hill, Ben Marshall; editor, Julian Quantrill; music, Roger Goula; music supervisor, Sarah Bridge; sound, Hill, Marshall; re-recording mixers, Richard Lewis, Steven Parker at Pindrop; line producer, Adam Booth.

With: Thomas Rongen, Larry Mana'O, Jaiyah Saelua, Nicky Salapu, Tavita Taumua, Liatama Amisone Jr., Rawlston Masaniai, Ramin Ott, Gail Rongen, D'Angelo Herrera. (English, Samoan dialogue)

More Film

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

  • Roman Polanski extradition

    Academy Responds to Roman Polanski: 'Procedures Were Fair and Reasonable'

    UPDATE: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has responded to a lawsuit from director Roman Polanski that claimed he was unfairly expelled from the organization behind the Oscars. “The procedures taken to expel Mr. Polanski were fair and reasonable. The Academy stands behind its decision as appropriate,” a spokesperson said. The Academy’s statement [...]

  • Lorraine Warren dead

    Lorraine Warren, Paranormal Investigator Who Inspired 'The Conjuring,' Dies at 92

    Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigator and demonologist whose life inspired franchises like “The Conjuring” and “The Amityville Horror,” has died. She was 92. Warren’s son-in-law Tony Spera confirmed the news. Spera said on Facebook, “She died peacefully in her sleep at home.” He continued, “She was a remarkable, loving, compassionate and giving soul. To quote Will [...]


    'Exorcist' Star Max Von Sydow Doesn't Let Age Define His Roles

    Max von Sydow turned 90 this month, which is a milestone for most people, but age has always seemed incidental to the actor. When he played the elderly, frail Father Merrin in “The Exorcist,” von Sydow was 44 — meaning he was the same age Bradley Cooper is today. In the 1950s, von Sydow had [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content