Next Goal Wins (2023)

Waititi and Fassbender are pitch perfect in ‘Next Goal Wins’ (2023)

In the film industry, remakes surface all the time, even when the story was told pretty well the first time. Someone in Hollywood decides to freshen up the story, try a new perspective, or rewrite the facts completely. So when I read that Director Taika Waititi was going to reconstruct the original 2014 documentary Next Goal Wins as a narrative comedy, I reacted with a pretty skeptical “Why?”.

But it turns out that Taika Waititi took the story and told it from a Polynesian angle, applying his unique form of humor. It’s a little like Thor: Ragnarok applied to football. Waititi’s first sports film showcases Polynesian people and culture and flips the white savior ethic. Coach Tom Rongen doesn’t save the American Samoan team by himself; all the Samoans help, and they in turn help save Rongen. It’s a feel-good film that is funny and touching, and the soccer is okay too.

The Story

Ostensibly, the story is about the American Samoa national team, which has never scored a goal nor won a game, and is dead last in the FIFA rankings. They have also registered the worst loss in FIFA history, 31-0 to Australia in 2001. Tavita Taumua (Oscar Kightley), as the president of the Football Federation American Samoa (FFAS), turns to USSoccer for help.

USSoccer sends Tom Rongen (Michael Fassbender) on a last-chance mission to save his career by coaching American Samoa thru World Cup Qualifying in 2011. He has 1 month to get the team ready, but they seem hopeless and without any desire to win. Everyone, even the head of the Federation, has multiple jobs, so how does anyone concentrate on soccer? They also have a transexual player on the team, Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana).

In addition to those issues, Rongen has his own demons to conquer, such as anger management, alcohol abuse, and the loss of a child and a marriage. He is so walled off from people that Tavita’s positivity drives him crazy. In the end, what works for everyone is to embrace their authentic selves and to set happiness as their next goal. Winning is secondary.

Because the film is a comedy, I assume the truth is stretched quite a bit and that most of the minor character depictions and backstory are fictional or a blend of real people. But that’s okay, because Waititi employs those characters to express the Polynesian culture with both humor and respect. In that sense, it’s similar to how Bend it Like Beckham tells the story of Indian migrants in England, and like BILB, succeeds because it is much more than a soccer movie.

Making the Movie

It wasn’t easy for Waititi to release this film; he sandwiched it into his schedule along with Thor. He shot the film in Nov-2019. It got waylaid by the pandemic and an Armie Hammer cancel culture, and all of Hammer’s scenes were reshot with Will Arnett. The film finally premiered in Sep-2023 at the Toronto film festival, about 3 years behind schedule.

Because this is a Taika Waititi film, there were a ton of reviews. Several criticized Michael Fassbender’s performance as Tom Rongen, but I thought Fassbender was pitch perfect. In fact, his half-time speech brought tears to my eyes. All the acting was terrific, especially Oscar Kightley as the sunny Tavita who seeds Rongen’s subconscience with motivational nuggets that keep Tom from quitting.

About that True Story

One nice thing about this story’s getting a turn by Waititi is that more interviews have been conducted with the original footballers and Tom Rongen. Also note that the film portrays the team’s win over Tonga to good dramatic effect, but that’s not how the game actually played out.

One thing I learned from the new media coverage is that the American Samoan National Team that lost 31-0 to Australia in 2001 was a last-minute team of mostly teenagers. Apparently, most of the American Samoan team were not citizens but were from neighboring Samoa. So in 2 weeks, all those players had to be replaced with American Samoans, and of those, most were in high school. Four players were in the 8th grade. Nicky Salapu was the GK and captain, and he was only 20. The only player older than him was 24 years old. He tells his story in a 2020 youtube interview with The Scoreless Thriller Podcast.

Another thing I learned is that GK Nicky Salapu, now 43 years old at the time of this review, recently got a call up to the NT along with his 15 year old son Dylan. A future movie in the works?

Tifo Football has a 9-minute youtube animation on “31-0, The Story of American Samoa”. It is a good summary of that debacle.

In Conclusion

After the long delays and all the hype, I was surprised how good this movie is. Its humor makes you love these characters. Although the media tended to focus on Jaiyah’s trans story, I value Taika Waititi’s film for its depiction of a Polynesian culture where everyone is welcomed and accepted. Mike Brett, the co-director of the documentary, noted back in 2014 that

“You really get a chance to see how that culture can help you as an outsider, as a human being, because it’s such a healing place and there’s a lot to learn there.”

Director Mike Brett on his 2014 documentary

It doesn’t matter whether or not your culture has a long history of accepting transgender, happy life is about bringing everyone into the melting pot to learn from each other and thrive together.


Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 10


10 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 10