By Mike Dub
*Opening today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
How many more of these movies do we need? A ragtag sports team, renowned as the worst in the league, comes together to achieve some moral victory through (fill in the blank: dedication, perseverance, teamwork, faith, etc.). The new documentary, Next Goal Wins, from directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, is another in the line of well-meaning and inoffensive tributes to a scrappy young group of folks who refused to give up, made no less clichéd by its documentary status.
The film follows the American Samoa soccer team, consistently the worst team in FIFA, as they work toward a World Cup qualifying tournament. The team is best known as having been on the losing side of the worst defeat in the history of international soccer, losing to Australia ten years ago by a score of 31-0. They have not won a single game in seventeen years. As they prepare for a World Cup qualifying event, it seems that just scoring a goal would be a triumph for this team.
As they prepare to fight for respect in a league dominated by better teams from larger, wealthier countries, Next Goal Wins finds itself in a difficult narrative situation. Everyone on the team seems to be genuinely nice, and they all play for the love of the game, with respect and love for each other – in a surprising and inspiring turn, a transgendered player is not only accepted by her teammates, but is regarded as the heart of the team.
The problem is that kind of facile camaraderie can be grating, if not outright boring. I’m well aware that were the team to be rife with personality clashes and fiery arguments, I would likely be complaining of reality show contrivances, but such is the difficulty of trying to make this kind of film. The teammates are so cordial and likable with each other, the eventual appearance of the gruff, cantankerous new head coach is a godsend, if only for the much-needed release of hearing someone shout the word, “Fuck!”
From the moment he enters the screen, former Dutch soccer coach Thomas Rongen becomes the star of the film. Effortlessly captivating, he is the real-life embodiment of the old, grizzled, foul-mouthed leader of the team. Rongen is a strange combination of the self-grandiosity of Werner Herzog and the crude inspiration of Jim Harbaugh (“I would cut off my penis to play in a world qualifying event!”).
Once Rongen becomes the centerpiece of the film, the pace picks up, and there is enough yelling and moaning to keep us interested for a while. Soon enough, the movie gets bogged down again in the predictable series of training montages, complete with funk music and slow motion. This all leads up to the big series of three games that will decide whether the team can advance to the next qualifying round, a Big Game triptych.
To its credit, the movie does not end where it could have. There is a point where many movies (including Moneyball, for instance) hit the note they are looking for and just stop. If nothing else, Next Goal Wins has the integrity to follow the team through its completion of the tournament. Of course, that also adds on an extra ten minutes to a film that already feels twice as long as it should be.
On the surface, Next Goal Wins is a tribute to the spirit of these young soccer players and their coach. But in the end, as we see the American Samoa team triumphantly climb above last place in the FIFA rankings, we understand that this is no different than almost every other sports movie ever made. As long as you’re better than someone, you have succeeded. And when the national soccer team of Bhutan finally climbs out of their newly minted last place ranking, I’m sure I’ll say the same thing about that documentary as well.