- Next Goal Wins dir. by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison
In a 2001 men’s World Cup qualifying match, Australia defeated American Samoa, 31–0. It was the largest margin of victory recorded in the history of international soccer. For the Australian players, the win justified their calls for FIFA to adjust its qualification process. For the American Samoan players, the loss capped a difficult season. The resounding defeat extended the team’s seven-year losing streak.
Next Goal Wins opens with the American Samoan team’s trouncing at the hands of their Australian rivals. While the historic loss provides insight into the background of soccer on the islands, the documentary focuses on the squad’s fight to end its winless drought—which reached seventeen years—in the 2011 World Cup qualifying matches. A decade after the matchup with Australia, the American Samoans did not seek to win the entire tournament. Rather, they made their goal a single victory in the preliminary rounds. By chronicling the squad’s journey, directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison depict the adversities of those who compete for a small, South Pacific country, provide a counterexample to the “win-at-all-costs” model through which sport is commonly filtered, and illustrate progressive interpretations of gender.
The American Samoan soccer team experienced difficulties unique to life on small islands. An unincorporated territory of the United States, American Samoa is comprised of five main islands, collectively about the size of Washington, D.C., with a population of approximately 65,000. Many American Samoans join the U.S. military following high school. Military service is the most viable avenue off the island; however, it drains the territory of its residents. “If you want to get off the island, you got to join the military,” explains striker Ramin Ott. Although posted in South Korea at the time, Ott took his entire annual leave to participate in the 2011 World Cup qualifiers. Aside from explaining how military service drains the American Samoan team’s talent pool, Next Goal Wins explores the damages caused by a 2009 tsunami that struck the territory. The violent storm caused over twenty casualties, devastated American Samoa’s cities, and ravaged its soccer fields.
The team endured despite the hardships. Consequently, one significant contribution of Next Goal Wins is its exploration of varying motives in sport. In glaring contrast to the victory-focused tenet of U.S. sport, American Samoa’s system is underlined by amateurism. This concept is brought to light when the team hires a coach from the U.S. Soccer Federation, Thomas Rongen. The squad hired Rongen after losing all five matches in the 2011 South Pacific Games—without scoring a single goal. Upon his arrival, Rongen immediately expressed frustration with the disorganized, inept American Samoan soccer program. “This is by far the lowest standards in international football,” he contends. Over the course of the documentary, however, Rongen grows to appreciate his team’s outlook. Crude and forceful initially, the coach is good-natured and supportive by the end of the [End Page 232] film. “It’s pretty incredible how people can actually influence you if you pay attention,” he asserts. “These guys actually play because they love the game. They get zero, nothing. Pretty amazing, actually.” When contrasted against the “win-at-all-costs” mantra that pervades U.S. sport, the difference is refreshing.
While the filmmakers highlight the divergent constitution of victory, the documentary’s most notable insight stems from its exploration of gender norms. Defender Jaiyah Saelua, born Johnny, belongs to American Samoa’s third gender, the Fa’afafine. “We have two spirits, the men’s and the women’s spirits,” Saelua explains. Unlike the hostile treatment gender transgressive individuals often experience in Western societies, American Samoans unhesitatingly embrace Fa’afafines. According to Saelua, in the Polynesian culture, “when a transgender is involved in anything, people get excited to see what’s going to happen. … As opposed to Western beliefs, who shoot them down.” Saelua started in...