American Samoa’s historical FIFA World Cup™ qualifying record could politely be described as ‘unsuccessful’. The country long remained rooted to the bottom of FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, having scored only twice in 17 years. They had also lost every competitive game they had ever played.
Tucked away on a long list of defeats is the demoralising 31-0 thrashing by Australia in 2001. That remains the heaviest defeat ever suffered in a competitive international. It’s a game Socceroos striker Archie Thompson, who scored 13 goals, and American Samoa goalkeeper Nicky Salapu will never forget. But one day, the Oceania underdogs' fortunes changed.
A maverick Dutchman stepped up to the plate, formed a winning team, and the fairytale story was captured by a film crew. Next Goal Wins will make its world premiere in New York on Saturday, at the Tribeca Film Festival, with the movie's three central characters at the screening.
Englishmen Mike Brett and Steve Jamison had been working in commercials, when one day they decided they wanted to make a film about the game they loved. Instead of following brand guidelines or a commercial campaign, they wanted to capture the game at its purest, the game loved and played by millions around the globe. Next stop: American Samoa.
“We went to American Samoa because the team’s story was exceptional,” Jamison told FIFA.com. “Without individual characters, you don’t have a movie. But as soon as we arrived, we realised there was far more to this group of players than the ‘bunch of losers’ tag that they had inherited.”
One of the central characters is defender Jaiyah Saelua, a Fa’afafine. Saelua was born male but grew up as a girl and then a woman – nothing especially unusual in Samoa, where Fa’afafines are regarded as a third, autonomous gender.
Thomas Rongen is a 55-year-old Dutchman, and it was he who answered a request from Football Federation American Samoa (FFAS) to the United States Soccer Federation seeking a new national team coach. At first Jamison was anxious: “When we heard he’d been appointed we thought that was it for our film. What would we do if Rongen wouldn’t let us film?”
Rongen nevertheless let them film. In one scene, he demonstrates to the team how to slide tackle on a waterlogged surface. The drill features a comical moment when one of the players slides, takes the ball…and Rongen! Rongen is clearly authoritarian, but he is an advocate of tough love. He learned his trade at the famous Amsterdam Academy, and during his career played alongside Johan Cruyff and George Best.
To complicate his towering task, American Samoa’s best player was posted 6,000 miles away by the US military. But at a team dinner, Rongen wins over the last lingering doubters. Talking about his daughter Nicole, killed in an accident at 18, he appeals to his players’ pride: “Live the moment. See this as an opportunity, not as an obstacle, as a great challenge, because there's worse things in life, quite frankly.”
On the touchline, Rongen wears a cap that belonged to his daughter, carrying her memory with him. It’s a poignant moment, in a film that shines a fascinating light into the customs and way of life in the South Pacific Ocean country, and how the islands recovered from a tsunami in 2009.
“There’s a strong correlation between losing a child and gaining 23 other children,” he tells the cameras, referring to his squad of players. “The last time I cried was at her [Nicole’s] funeral. I haven’t cried since, so I think the fact that I did cry here a few times… I’m not healed, but I’ve become a better person with the help of this island.”
The film has an epic finale as the crew, coach and his 23-man squad work towards one special day: 22 November 2011 as American Samoa meet Tonga, at the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers.
We will not spoil the surprise and script too much but a the cameras roll and the tears flow, the weight of the previous ten years visibly lifts from the shoulders of goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, who tells the cameras he’d like to maybe play Australia “just one more time”.
If you love football, a story about the underdog, and how, if you want something hard enough, even the most improbable dreams can come true, you will definitely enjoy Next Goal Wins. The film is out on general release next month.