Unraveling the True Story of Taika Waititi’s ‘Next Goal Wins’

True stories are the lifeblood of sports films. From Jamaica’s first bobsled squad to the establishment of a women-only baseball league in the 1940s, the genre is preoccupied with real-world underdog stories. Taika Waititi’s latest film, Next Goal Wins, is no exception. Though the story of a football team trying to save face after losing 31-0 and becoming the world’s worst national team may appear strange, it is most emphatically true. The real reality behind the mythology of the Samoan American national team’s Earth-shattering defeat to Australia, however, is much more intricate than any movie could possibly tell.

Next Goal Wins is based on the 2014 documentary of the same name directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. It follows Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) as he tries to turn the underdog team, considered the weakest in the world, into an elite squad capable of competing against other countries in the 2014 World Cup. Or, at the very least, try: the American Samoan team never made it that far.

“After seeing the documentary a few years ago, I knew it was a narrative I had to convey and twist… “If you don’t want to watch the documentary, you might as well watch Next Goal Wins,” Waititi addressed the audience before Next Goal Wins’ international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. And guess what? He is correct! It is expected of a fiction filmmaker to make all essential alterations to transform a true story into a good fictitious one. But it doesn’t imply we aren’t interested in what happens outside the screen. So, what exactly is the truth behind Next Goal Wins? What really happened to Rongen and the American Samoan football team?

What’s the True Story That Inspired ‘Next Goal Wins’?

Because Waititi begins his story with Rongen’s arrival in American Samoa, that’s where we’ll pick up as well. Rongen, who was born in Amsterdam, travelled to the United States in 1979 to play for the now-defunct Los Angeles Aztecs. He had recently failed to take the American Under-20 team to the 2011 World Cup when he received an unusual employment offer: to train the American Samoan football team, which was then known as the world’s weakest national team. The most unusual aspect of the offer was that he only had three weeks to prepare them for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

“I watched quite a few games in their Pacific Games tournament, and nobody could play 90 minutes,” the coach told The Athletic. “All right, I have three weeks; that’s an area where we can improve.” They were poorly organised, both technically and tactically. I thought I could make a few changes, but I’m not sure you can accomplish much in three weeks.” But the Samoans didn’t have big hopes for him: according to Rongen, they were content to be good enough not to lose by more than ten points.

And Rongen was able to do so. Though American Samoa did not advance to the World Cup, which was hosted in Brazil in 2014, the country’s national squad did lose with dignity, scoring one goal to Tonga’s two and ending the match against the Cook Islands in a 1-1 stalemate. Prior to the qualifications, the squad managed to win a 2-1 match against Tonga. Furthermore, no Oceania Football Confederation country qualified for the 2014 World Cup, which lessens the shame of missing out on the event. A remarkable list of accomplishments for a squad that was once regarded as the lowest of the bad.

The Samoan American Soccer Team Lost a Match 31-0 to Australia

But what was so bad about the American Samoan national team? For starts, they had played 30 games since their formation in 1994 and had lost all of them. That victory over Tonga stated in the previous paragraph? That was their first victory. Then there’s their historic 31-0 loss to Australia in a 2001 game that would have earned the winner a spot in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

The event was held on April 11 at the Coffs Harbour International Stadium in Australia, and the final score eclipsed the mark for the most goals in an international game, which Australia had established just two days earlier when it defeated Tonga 22-0. Archie Thompson, a New Zealand native, set another record for his team by scoring 13 goals, surpassing Denmark’s Sofus Nielsen and Germany’s Gottfried Fuchs, who all scored 10 goals against France in 1908 and Russia in 1912.

“Breaking the world record is a dream come true, but you have to ask questions about the teams we’re playing.” We don’t need to engage in these games. “It’s a complete waste of time,” Thompson stated after the game. “At the end, their guys were laughing. They weren’t sure what else they could do. “I believe their only attack consisted of crossing the halfway line.”

And, indeed, one must scrutinise the team against which they are competing. While the outcome may appear to be embarrassing, the fact that the American Samoa team was able to play this 2001 game was already a win. The squad had been undermined by the International Association Football Federation (FIFA) and lacked many of the components of a professional team.

When FIFA required US passports from the Samoan players, 19 of their 20 players were disqualified. Only keeper Nicky Salapu, who appeared in Uli Latukefu’s Next Goal Wins, was instantly cleared. A fresh squad was quickly assembled, with an average age of 19 years old. Two of the players were in fact 15 years old, and they couldn’t even finish the game since they had school exams. Many of the players, according to manager Tony Langkilde, were not used to playing for the entire 90 minutes of a professional game, and some did not have the necessary shoes for the occasion. In truth, the actors weren’t even 100% professionals: as depicted in Waititi’s film, the majority of them had day jobs.

With all of that in mind, one has to applaud their persistence in making it all the way through their first World Cup qualifier ever. And the final score could have been worse: for a while, the manual board showed that the Australians had won 32-0, but that was a mistake made by an operator who was too distracted by the number of balls striking the Samoan goal’s net. “I couldn’t see any reason why they would want to score so many goals,” coach Tunoa Lui stated after the game.

The whole event resulted in a few adjustments to how World Cup qualifying are handled in the Pacific Ocean. While the OFC established a new pre-qualification competition for its four lowest-ranked teams, Australia applied to the Asian Football Confederation. As of 2006, the Australian national team no longer plays their Oceanic counterparts, but rather countries that put up a better fight, such as China and Japan.

The American Samoan Team Featured the First Transgender Professional Soccer Player Ever

The American Samoan football squad made history for reasons other than their humiliating defeat. The team was also the first in professional football history to have a transgender player. Jaiyah Saelua identifies as a fa’afafine, which is a Samoan term for a third gender. The fa’afafine, who are born masculine, exemplify duties that have historically been assigned to one gender or the other in a binary worldview. Some people live their lives entirely as women, while others choose to live as males while retaining a few feminine characteristics.

According to a BBC report from 2016, between 1% to 5% of the 190,000 individuals living in American Samoa identify as fa’afafine. Nonetheless, Saelua spent the majority of her time on the team sitting on the bench. “I read somewhere that it was a record when I was drafted into the national team,” she said James Montague, the author of Thirty-One Nil, a football history book. “I was reserve the whole tournament and I had to leave early because I was still in high school, but the coach threw me on for 10 minutes.” Selua is played by non-binary artist Kaimana in Next Goal Wins.

Next Goal Wins is now playing in theatres.

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