Nicky Salapu is like the FIFA equivalent of the Mets’ profoundly unlucky Anthony Young. You have to pitch decently to set the all time consecutive losing game record without getting busted down to the minors. Likewise, the fact that Salapu was never pulled from goal during American Samoa’s record-setting 31-0 loss to Australia says something about his competitive spirit. The underfunded volunteer national team subsequently became the butt of the soccer world’s jokes, but a new coach will try to change their losing ways. Mike Brett & Steve Jamison document their turnaround efforts at the regional World Cup qualifying tournament in Next Goal Wins (trailer here), which is now playing in New York following high-profile “Drive-In” screening at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
In seventeen years, the American Samoan team never won an official game and only managed to score two goals. After another agonizing season, team management appeals to the American Federation for help. U.S. Soccer tries to recruit a game-changer coach, but they only get one taker: mad Dutchman Thomas Rongen. He is a hardnose’s hardnose, who does not seem interested in making friends, but he sees something in the team. He respects Salapu’s grit and admires the integrity of Jaiyeh Saelua, a transgender defender (considered part of Samoa’s traditional fa’afafine “third gender’).
There are a lot of surprises in this scrappy underdog story, including the evolution of Rongen. Still reeling from a personal tragedy, Rongen starts connecting with his players, finding something he did not even know he was looking for. He also knows more football cold. Still, the odds are still stacked against his team.
Brett & Jamison capture some legitimately touching moments and ratchet up the suspense during the qualifier. As Steve at Unseen Films can verify, at one point during the tournament, your faithful correspondent let loose an all too audible “dammit.” That’s getting caught up in the action.
American Samoa should start making licensing deals, because Goal is destined to become a sleeper hit over time and just about every sports fan who watches it will want to wear their colors. It might be tempting to say it illustrates the old saying: “it’s not about winning or losing, but how you play the game.” Yet this is too pat and simplistic. Throughout Goal we witness the team risking the worst sort of humiliation and mockery, because of the pride they take in representing American Samoa.