Next Goal Wins

****1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Next Goal Wins
"Next Goal Wins will hit the back of the net with even footie-phobic viewers."

Joining the likes of Fire In Babylon, Senna and TT3D as sports docs that transcend their subject matter to hold true universal appeal, Next Goal Wins is perhaps the best cinematic documentary yet seen this year. Rookie directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison hardly put a foot wrong in chronicling the most hopeless team in the World Cup, taking a simple underdog story and spinning it out in all directions in ways that will have viewers laughing, cheering and crying as if they were at a match themselves. With stunning camerawork, fleet-footed editing and an array of unforgettable people at its winsome heart, Next Goal Wins deserves to crossover and find mainstream success more than any documentary since last year's outstanding Blackfish.

The South Pacific islands of Amerika Samoa may not have much of a population, but it does have a national football team, consisting of men training in their spare time while often holding down several jobs. Having suffered the most momentous defeat in international football history - they lost 31-0 to Australia in 2001 - the team desperately needs to pull out all the stops if it hopes to join the 2014 Fifa World Cup, and so enlists the services of the heavily-disciplined Dutch coach Thomas Rongen. Despite initial antagonism over their laidback ways and a training window of only 3 weeks, Rongen whips the motley crew into shape, even finding their example and culture touches him in more personal ways than expected. But with unknown quantities like transgender Jaiyah and national laughing stock goalie Nicky Salapu making a return to the squad, Rongen has his work cut out if he hopes to win even one game.

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Opening with close-ups of TV pixels magnifying their unprecedented defeat, audience sympathies are immediately secured through the players' philosophical and upbeat demeanours even in the face of such international embarrassment. As Brett and Jamison go on to examine the country more generally, it doesn't hurt that American Samoa is so aesthetically pleasing - as are its people - but there's more to tackle here than picture-postcard exoticism. The cinematography is undeniably breathtaking, but there's also a keen eye behind the lens furtively picking up all sorts of telling and relatable emotions. There's even some brilliant use of recognisable songs, whether it's Boards Of Canada sound-tracking a stunning mountain hike or Rare Earth's I Just Want To Celebrate backing a training montage (of which this film has perhaps the most rousing examples in memory).

Covering everything from the region's deep religious faith to the struggle to avoid poverty and raise families, the directors paint an especially damning portrait of America's relationship with its less illustrious neighbour through the inevitability of its drafting Samoans looking to escape their homeland into its army. There's also some truly sensitive and fascinating insight into the country's official 'third gender', the fa'afafine, among which the team's Jaiyah proudly counts herself. She's billed as the world's first transgender player, but that term doesn't fully explain the place these people hold within their society, and to say more would spoil some of the most bittersweet moments as relayed by Jaiyah herself.

The last half hour covers the qualifying games in satisfying detail, ensuring audiences will be fully invested in the outcomes and perched on the edge of their seats. Individual players really come to the fore here, with the contributions of everyone from risky first pick Jaiyah to US imports like Rawlston and Charles providing brilliantly rousing moments. As the keeper who infamously gave away 31 goals, Nicky Salapu's journey through these decisive matches is particularly fraught, the aging athlete emerging as a true hero through his sheer determination to salvage his reputation and quell his inner demons. Coach Rongen gets a little too much of the celebratory final moments despite his transition from stern outsider to bona fide family member proving highly emotional, but the glory undoubtedly lies with the likes of Jaiyah and Salapu: viewers won't forget them in a hurry.

Overall, Next Goal Wins will hit the back of the net with even footie-phobic viewers, its underdog element bringing it in line with 20 Feet From Stardom, but it's a far more focused piece than that perhaps undeserved Oscar-nabber. American Samoa may well see its tourist trade booming should this become a Searching For Sugar Man-style sleeper, and the players should finally get the appreciation they deserve. Brett and Jamison are surely ones to watch, and their debut will hopefully be recognised not just for its heart-warming message but for its subtle and far-reaching observations of a heretofore unfamiliar culture.

Reviewed on: 13 May 2014
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The world's worst football team shoots for the stars.
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Director: Mike Brett, Steve Jamison

Starring: Thomas Rongen, Jaiyah Saelua, Nicky Salapu, Gene Ne'emia, Larry Mana'o, Rawlston Masaniai

Year: 2014

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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