Hollywood treatment for American Samoa

From Chariots of Fire and Raging Bull to Cool Runnings and Remember the Titans, the movie industry is peppered with stories of sporting triumph – especially those that are secured against massive odds. But while those films’ famous sporting moments have been replicated with full dramatic licence, it’s rare for a documentary crew to capture that same sense of excitement just as “real” sporting history is made.

That, however, was exactly what happened in 2011 when tiny American Samoa registered their first-ever international win during the opening stage of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ before the rolling cameras of London-based documentary-makers Mike Brett, Steve Jamison and Kristian Brodie.

During a visit to FIFA’s Zurich headquarters to screen their subsequent movie Next Goal Wins, director Jamison explained how the trio had decided to head to the South Pacific island nation in a quest to discover the “true spirit” of football.

“It seemed obvious that the players in a team that had never won anything, but continued to play in the face of defeat time and time again, must love the sport more than anyone,” he explained. “And that set us thinking...”

A few weeks later, Jamison, Brett and Brodie took themselves and a small camera crew to Pago Pago, the capital “city” of American Samoa (national population 55,000) to learn more about a football team still best remembered for having suffered the worst FIFA World Cup qualifying defeat in history – a crushing 31-0 defeat at the hands of Australia in 2001 – during a gruelling sequence of 30 straight defeats since the country’s first official international back in 1994. They arrived as the team encountered another losing streak, this time at the Pacific Games, where American Samoa played almost a match a day over the tournament week and lost every one – without even managing a single goal.

As they became more familiar with the team and with island life, the film-makers realised that American Samoa’s problems did not just centre on the usual concerns of morale, tactics and fitness. Facing an unemployment rate of nearly 25 per cent, many of the island’s young men would leave to join the US military or to work in American cities, and those in the national football squad could only return a few times a year to train or play for their country. The challenges seemed insurmountable.

“In childhood games, when you say that the next goal wins, everyone seems to get motivated and heightened to achieve that goal. Regardless of the outcome of the game that we’ve had, here [in American Samoa] ‘next goal wins’ or ‘any goal wins’ for us,” explains team coach Larry Mana’o, himself a Seattle-based expatriate.

Revival under Rongen
With the prospect of another disappointing run just a month away, the drafting-in of Dutch-born hardliner Thomas Rongen was to prove a pivotal moment for both the team and the film-makers.

“We’d been following the team for several months when the hurricane that is Thomas Rongen landed!” recalls Brett. “He was the catalyst. That’s when the hard work really began for the team and when our documentary really started to come together.”

Fresh from a seven-year tenure with the USA’s U-20 national team, the gravel-voiced Rongen was brought in to coach American Samoa for the opening round of Oceania’s FIFA World Cup qualifying competition, and he soon made an impression on his new charges thanks to his uncompromising approach to the job.

A confirmed atheist, Rongen initially refused to switch his training schedule around to fit in with daily church services (in a country where 98 per cent of the population are Christians), and insisted on importing key players from the American Samoan diaspora.

Looking back on it all later, Rongen admitted that the experience had been as much of a learning curve for him as it as it had been for the players.

“I had to learn some serious lessons in the beginning,” Rongen told FIFA World in a February telephone interview. “I thought I would go in there hard, training twice a day and the rest, but that plainly didn’t work with this squad. So I immersed myself in their culture, threw out the books and developed a new training plan. But I also knew no amount of training was going to get the team to a competitive level that quickly, so I found four American Samoan players who lived in the US, and, when I reminded our existing team that our aim was to win, they quickly bought into the idea.”

Perhaps most controversially of all, Rongen decided to recall Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper from that record 2001 loss to Australia. Despite the intervening decade, Salapu reveals in the film how the spectre of the 31-0 defeat still haunts him. The team’s new coach was adamant, however, that the goalie should return.

“Everybody knows about him – that match is one of the most watched YouTube videos ever,” Rongen says. “I called him and asked him to come back, to shed his demons. It was a gamble because I had no idea if he was capable of giving me more than he’d showed on that pitch ten years ago. But I needed somebody there who could represent the battle scars of the team. When training didn’t go well, I just had to remind them that Nicky was here and that he had been reliving that game for all these years, and if he can exorcise his demons then so can the team.

The first thing he said after the game is ‘I can now tell my children that I’m a winner’. Now that is bigger than the game itself, quite frankly.
Thomas Rongen, American Samoa coach.

A football first
As well as following the team’s surprising progress under Rongen, Next Goal Wins also challenges the notions of what it is to be competitive, to win and to be strong. One of the key figures in the story is defender Johnny or “Jaiyah” Saelua, one of the Fa’afafine or “third gender” specific to Samoan culture. A biological male living 24/7 as a woman, Saelua surprised Rongen by emerging as one of the team’s most influential players.

“She’s a great symbol for the inclusivity of football and also an inspirational team player in her own right,” Rongen told the film-makers during one of the training sessions.

In a lengthy career that belies her age, the 24-year-old has been in American Samoa’s national squad for a decade already, making her debut on the pitch as a young teen in an away game against Fiji. Saelua is also believed to be the first transgender player ever to participate in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, although she says that in American Samoa it’s not uncommon for Fa’afafines to play football.

“Most of the Fa’afafines play as full-backs," said Saelua. "When we’re on the pitch, we may run like girls, but in every other aspect of the game, we are definitely men. I put all things gender-related aside when I’m on the field and become a ‘football player’. I’m not a woman or a man, not a transgender, not even a friend to the Fa’afafine in the other team. Just a football player on a mission.”

The road to the qualifiers in neighbouring Samoa was a new challenge for Saelua, who initially regarded new coach Rongen with some trepidation.

“At first I tried to act as masculine as possible on and off the field because I knew how most Palagi [Caucasian] men in sports feel about transgendered athletes. The last two Palagi coaches never gave me any playing time. But when coach Thomas asked me ‘Would you rather be called Jaiyah or Johnny?’, he made me feel comfortable playing as a transgender.”

Rongen’s faith in Saelua’s on-pitch skills also meant she was given the opportunity to start in the opening FIFA World Cup qualifier match in Apia, Samoa’s capital.

“Because he gave me that honour, I told myself ‘Jaiyah, you had better work on that field so you can stay on the pitch’. I didn’t come off the pitch the entire tournament. I even played with a swollen ankle against the Cook Islands and with a broken toe and swollen knee against Samoa. The win against Tonga was a personal win for me. I accomplished a lot during that game – my first time starting, my first time playing the full 90 minutes, my first man-of-the-match title, my first goal assist. I was extremely proud of myself.”

Historic victory
22 November 2011 proved to be the turning point for the tiny South Pacific nation, when the six weeks of hard work by Rongen and the team finally saw them break that long, long losing sequence – with goals from Ramin Ott and 17-year-old Shalom Luani handing the team a 2-1 win over Tonga in the opening game of the campaign.

Proving that their win was no accident, American Samoa then followed it up with a 1-1 draw against the Cook Islands to put them on the brink of an unlikely progression to the second round. In the end, it was not to be, as neighbours Samoa narrowly clinched top spot with a hard-fought 1-0 win, secured in the 89th minute of the decisive game between the two teams. Not that American Samoa looked, or felt, like losers as they left the pitch with their heads held high.

“It’s been the best example of amateur football,” Rongen said once the final whistle had blown. “For example, our goalkeeper had been carrying this 31-0 defeat to Australia with him, and after the game I hugged him first. He was crying. The first thing he said after the game is ‘I can now tell my children that I’m a winner’. Now that is bigger than the game itself, quite frankly.”

As well as lifting American Samoa off the bottom of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the turnaround has given the team a long-overdue belief that they can go on to achieve even more in the future, as well as providing the film-makers with an unexpected “Hollywood” ending to their documentary.

With the film now preparing for a release in the run-up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the documentary-makers would certainly be happy if the success story led to many “sequels” for American Samoa, and have pledged to allocate some of the profits from the movie for the future development of football on the island.           

After the final scene…
While documentary-makers Steve Jamison, Mike Brett and Kristian Brodie have spent the last year editing 300 hours of film to create Next Goal Wins, the American Samoan team and Thomas Rongen have had the chance to reflect on their unexpected experience of becoming reality stars. From the start, Rongen and the film-makers agreed that if the players’ dynamic changed in front of the cameras, the filming would be called to a permanent halt.

“If anyone had played up or acted like a star then I would have said ‘Guys, you have to stop. This is no good for what we are trying to accomplish here with the team’,” Rongen explains. “That’s why I think this is going to be a unique movie: because it’s not staged – it’s from the heart.

“Mike, Steve and Kristian put their time, passion, love and hard-earned money into the project and we all respected that. I deal with athletes every day, and those guys’ dedication and commitment was as intense as that.”

As a direct result of his success with American Samoa, Rongen was offered and accepted a new role as director of the Toronto FC Football Academy. The hype and expectation surrounding Next Goal Wins has helped maintain the close bond between him and his former charges, however, with the producers’ social media updates concerning the planned release and distribution of the movie connecting the off-islanders, their home-based team-mates and Rongen: all of whom are looking forward to seeing both the film and each other at the film’s premiere later this year.

All involved in the film hope that their story will help to sustain the excitement and new-found passion for the sport that has gripped the island since the win over Tonga. Already, Football Federation American Samoa has reported a surge in interest among young children, with more and more parents now enrolling their children in football camps – although there is also awareness that maintaining the momentum is the next challenge.

“Through watching Next Goal Wins, people on the island will realise that their children’s opportunity isn’t only in American football, but also in soccer,” says player-turned-film star Jaiyah Saelua, “and I hope people feel our love for the game. We might be one of the worst teams in the world, but we definitely have the same passion as teams like Brazil and Spain!”

Triumph at last
A look at some of the key statistics relating to the American Samoan team reveals how far the team had to come before finally tasting victory in FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

30 - Straight defeats in the 17 years since the team’s first international match.

31-0 - Record defeat to Australia in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in April 2001.

129-2 - American Samoa’s total goal tally up until the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup,

1 - International victory, a 2-1 win over Tonga in the opening round of Brazil 2014 qualifying.

1 - International draw, a 1-1 stalemate with the Cook Islands two days later.

1-0 - The scoreline of the narrow defeat to Samoa that ended the team’s dream of reaching the second round.