Next Goal Wins

  • 10 Feb - 16 Feb, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

We have seen too many underdog sports stories to know the template – Next Goal Wins even gives us dialogues from one of those, Any Given Sunday. These involve a lot of anger, passion, injuries, and heartbreaks, in the way to that promised glory.
Taika Waititi is perhaps trying to pack too much into a film that is about the length of a football game. There is the underdog story, of the American Samoa football team that carries the tag of being “the world’s worst” for losing a game 31 goals to nil. There is the coach story, of the kind who needs to redeem himself having had one tumble too many. And there is the Waititi story, which must now make itself felt in his every venture – a blend of funny, absurd, and on-the-nose White Man vs The Rest theme.
It’s perhaps not the best way to tell this tale, based on the real-life American Samoa team, which suffered the ignominy of that loss. The jokes come at the expense of digging into the individual stories of the players, some of whom hold multiple jobs to be able to continue playing. And at the cost of looking deeper into the small island of just over 50,000, which is on the face of it a paradise, of communal prayers, singing, dancing and eating, but which is fast losing its young for lack of anything to do – “work in the fish industry” or “join the army”, are their two options, as one says.
Waititi, who has adapted this film from a documentary on the team by the same name, is insistent on keeping it light and fun. All its cathartic energy is rather spent on the Danish-American coach Rongen (Fassbender), who finds himself sent to the island against his wishes, to whip the team into shape in three weeks, in time for the World Cup qualifiers. Rongen comes in carrying the baggage of a long string of meltdowns on field, as well as the breakdown of his marriage off it (Moss in the unnecessary role of the wife), and he wears his anger on his sleeve.
Rongen expectedly has a hard time understanding the perennially positive Samoan team football manager Tavita (a convincing Kightley), the team’s rag-tag and hopelessly out-of-shape players and, most of all, the fact that they carry on regardless.
One of the teammates, Jaiyah, who would be the world’s first openly trans player to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, leaves the deepest impression on Rongen. Jaiyah is beautifully played by newcomer Kaimana, who is fragile against the (meant/unmeant) biases of foreigners like Rongen, but gets her amazing sense of security from the Samoan society, which has space in it for the entire spectrum from he-to-she.
Waititi, for all the unevenness of Next Goal Wins, gives us another – un-American – retelling of this tale. Where winning is important, but not everything; where happiness is something, if not everything; where fun and time-out have a space; and where life is not just about a series of goals hitting the back of the net. Rather, as Tavita keeps telling Rongen, all they hope for is “one goal”, so as to move on. Or, as Rongen’s wife reminds him, football is not “only sport”; it can also be “just a game”.