Here’s how low the underdogs have sunk at the start of the rousing Next Goal Wins, the latest sports doc to follow a losing team’s quest not for a championship but for dignity: The American Samoan national soccer team suffers a 31-0 loss to Australia in the opening credits. Naturally, that results in some rebuilding years, during which the Samoan players — all of whom have jobs or school or urgent business elsewhere — gather to listen to a motivational speaker flown in by the team to put them “in the zone.” He opens with the story of a blind man who, one step at a time, manages to climb Mount Everest, “at one point the tallest mountain in North America.”
They’re not even expected to climb on the right continent.
Sometime after that, the team gets rung up by New Caledonia in the South Pacific Games, prompting these encouraging words from their coach: “They needed nine goals today. You gave them only eight. It’s a step in the right direction!”
The team, ranked the lowest in the world by FIFA for 17 years, faces two obstacles that seem insurmountable: They represent a teensy territory with little budget to develop talent; worse, they’re still technically American, which means world-class football just isn’t something the kids are dreaming of. The players are, though. We meet Nicky Salapu the wise-eyed goaltender who gave up those 31 points — he says he regrets nothing — and the younger players who lionize him as “the best.” Salapu’s impressive as both an athlete and a model of willfulness; the brain spins considering what Australia’s score might have been if he hadn’t been the tender.
Fortunately, someone’s got a dream, which leads to the arrival of Dutch football coach Thomas Rongen, a wiry, shouty type brought in to train this amateur squad to prepare for the qualifying rounds of the 2014 World Cup.
You can anticipate the kind of culture clashes and training montages to come. More arresting are the portraits of the players and the American Samoan way of life. “I’m not a male or a female: I’m a soccer player,” says Jaiyah Saelua, who identifies as Fa’afafine, Samoa’s third gender. In Hawaii, where she goes to college, Saelua lives as a woman; on the soccer field, she’s one of the best of the boys, warmly accepted by her team — and, eventually, something of a star player.
Eventually, Rongen and his players come to understand each other, and the qualifying matches for this year’s cup turn out to be tense, exciting games, with the scrappy Samoan squad playing their hearts out and still struggling to get through 90 minutes of intense play without cramping. (As Rongen explains, with some admiration, training is tough when you have five jobs.) Directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison juice the climactic footage somewhat, with slo-mo suspense and pump-you-up funk music, but by that point, some traditional sports-movie magic feels appropriate: These players have fought so hard they deserve to be honored with the clichŽs of the genre. If you’re a person, and you find other people worth your time and attention, Next Goal Wins will stir you, especially when Salapu comes back to tend goal again, ready as ever, 10 years after that 31-0 loss. It doesn’t matter where Everest is — this guy’s climbing it.