By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc., SDL (He/Him)

The recently released 2023 feature film, Next Goal Wins, tells the story of the national soccer team in American Samoa, the proclaimed “worst soccer team in the world”. After becoming a member of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the American Samoan team competed in their first ever FIFA recognized tournament in 1998 where they were swiftly defeated by Tongo 3-0. Then in 2001 at their first FIFA World Cup qualifier, they set the record for the largest margin of victory when Australia beat them 31-0.

In the lead up to the 2014 World Cup, Dutch born American soccer coach, Thomas Rongen is fired from his job, recently lost his daughter, and is now separated from his wife. He is sent by FIFA to American Samoa in an effort to help coach the national team and “score a goal”. Upon arriving in American Samoa, but Rongen and the people of American Samoa immediately experience a strong culture clash. The American Samoans do their best to welcome Rongen to the island and show hospitality but are their relaxed and spiritual culture doesn’t quite align with Rongen’s serious performance-oriented personality.

As both sides struggle to fit in with each other, Rongen gets to practice with the team and quickly realizes they are lacking in basic technical skill and conditioning. He is further frustrated when he tries to lead the first practice with focus on disciplined training, but the team quickly becomes distracted by the grand entrance of their teammate, Jaiyah Saelua, a player who is Fa’afāfine.

One of the central themes of the film is the culture clash between Rongen and American Samoan society, but it is played out in a rather humerous “fish out of water” kind of approach. For example, there is a scene early on with Rongen shopping at the store, and in the middle of a conversation a bell ring and suddenly everybody goes quiet, bows their head and stands still. Vastly confused, Rongen stumbles around trying to understand what’s going on before grabbing his items and leaving the store. It is later explained that this is the time for prayer and occurs every day.

On the flip side, a moment when out of frustration, Rongen leaves practice and finds himself on the beach. Suddenly he sees this strange person picking up tin cans on the beach and mumbling weird sayings about tin cans. The “Tin Can Lady” then points to him and relates a metaphoric story about collecting tin cans to give them a second chance at life. A story that connects well enough to Rongen that he agrees to try and help the team. It is later revealed that the whole “Tin Can Lady” was an act because “white people love hollow spirituality, which is why so many of them flock to yoga.” Honestly, as a white person, I was cracking up during that scene, especially with how true it hits.

When Rongen then meets Jaiyah, the culture clash theme really takes a center seat when Jaiyah arrives to practice, is welcomed by her (male) teammates but Rongen thinks she is just there to watch. Rongen’s coaching colleague, Ace, tries to explain that Jaiyah is a key player on the team, but Rongen is confused because it’s a men’s team and Jaiiyah is a woman. Jaiyah and Ace explain that she’s Fa’afāfine which, in American Samoa, is a normalized third gender identity akin to the western equivalent of a transgender person. In the film, Rongen and Jaiyah get off to a bad start when Rongen insists on deadnaming Jaiyah and referring to her with masculine pronouns. However, Jaiyah quickly stands up for herself, shoving the coach down and putting him into a chokehold.

As the story develops, one of the driving elements is the way that Rongen’s and Jaiyah’s coach-athlete relationship develops alongside his own struggles with coaching the team. Rongen apologizes to Jaiyah for disrespecting her identity and in turn Jaiyah apologizes for pinning him on the ground and trying to choke him. Rongen sees Jaiyah as a key leader within the team and takes the time to better learn and understand her, not just in reference to her gender identity but overall personality and goals. This is representing a typical discussion that trans people have practically every day, with questions about “what body parts do you have… down there?” and what not. It is made clear in the movie that Jaiyah is the first trans person Rongen ever met, but thankfully the movie doesn’t otherwise focus much on that aspect of the representation. It’s two brief scenes that are quickly resolved with the main focus of the character representation on the coach-athlete relationship.

Rongen and Jaiyah spend time watching recordings of previous football matches, both American Samoan and other teams as well to pick apart the team strategies and discuss different tactics within the game. Jaiyah and Rongen also work together to recruit some of the previous players from the matches with Tonga and Australia that had since retired, but still actively living on the island. Bring this all back into the team to help them better prepare for the upcoming World Cup qualifier.

Upon arriving at the World Cup Qualifier, American Samoa’s first match is against Tongo, who quickly enter the American Samoa bunk room to intimidate the team. With the Tongo team quickly narrowing in Jaiyah as “their mascot” in an expression of transphobia. As the match gets underway, despite a rousing motivational speech by Ronge, the team struggles again against Rongen’s aggressive and performance/goal-oriented coaching style. Leading to the end of the first half with a rough verbal beat down in the lockerroom and the team ready to pack it up. As Rongen himself leaves to quit, he is reminded that American Samoan culture is more about having fun, playing the game because soccer is “a game” and that win or lose, they were grateful to have the experience to travel to a different island and attend the event. This helps Rongen face a reality check of his own and returns to the lockerroom with an apology and expression of facing his own tragedies and frustrations that he has to learn to let go of.

The ultimate lesson here being to simply “be in the moment” and enjoy the experience for what it is, regardless of the outcome. Upon realizing this, Rongen and the team return to the match feeling a bit looser and more relaxed, where the team then goes on to score their “first goal as a country since they tried to have a soccer team”. They went on to score a second goal and wind up winning the match, beating their rivals from Tongo 2-1.

Overall, the film is a relatively “by the books” inspirational under-dog sports story. But it comes with a lot of humor and lightheartedness, as well as fun moments of soccer and training. The dramatic speech that Rongen shares during the match’s half time really hints well at Michael Fassbender’s ability to deliver a dramatic monologue and serves as solid character development to better understand “why” Rongen has been so frustrated the whole time. While there are plenty of hints and cues in the movie leading up to the moment, it is well written that the audience doesn’t fully realize the impact of it all until that moment. The actress Kaimana did a wonderful job portraying Jaiyah and the overall representation of her as simply another member of the team. It was a strong and positive representation of trans athletes in sport that did well to highlight the basic foundations of what sport represents, to have fun.

Photo Credit: Searchlight Pictures