Any other director would have probably made a typical “white savior” story out of the American Samoa football team’s incredible win against Tonga during the FIFA World Cup qualifiers back in 2011, but thanks to both his Indigenous roots and his directorial skill, Taika Waititi has managed to avoid that in Next Goal Wins. However, only someone like Waititi, who has a penchant for telling strange but very powerful “humane” stories, would choose a topic like this. The “white savior” here is football coach Thomas Rongen, who made it happen for the American Samoans. Michael Fassbender plays the part with the utmost earnestness, but Waititi makes sure that the film remains about the Samoan people, the culture, and their achievements. Next Goal Wins does have all the usual sports film clichés, but Taika has infused it with his signature style of humour. The result is not exactly promising like his earlier films (not Thor: Love and Thunder, though), but it’s undeniable that the film does have enormous heart.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In The Movie?
American Samoa became the laughing stock of the football world after they got thrashed 31-0 by Australia back in 2001. Ten years have gone by, and things have not only changed; they are even worse now. Sitting at the absolute bottom of the FIFA rankings and getting bullied by whoever they play with has become a normal thing. The situation is so bad that all Tavita Tamua, president of the Football Federation, wishes for is just one goal. It doesn’t matter if the team loses the match, as that’s inevitable anyway; scoring one goal would be considered an achievement. Unfortunately, in the Pacific Nations Cup, team Samoa fails to fulfill Tavita’s wish, and the president ends up with obscene drawings on his own face as a part of a bet. This calls for a new head coach, and current coach Ace is more than happy to be demoted to deputy.
Who’s On The Plane?
That’s the name of American Samoa’s popular reality show, where Tavita, the Football Federation president, works as a cameraman. Anyway, the latest entrant in “Who’s on the plane?” is none other than Thomas Rongen, aka the much-awaited savior. Rongen is a European football coach who has mostly worked in the United States and has a pretty good record but is currently out of work thanks to his notorious bad behavior on the field. Even though American Samoa is the last place he would go, he has no choice but to say yes after being put in a position of either accepting the job or staying unemployed by the Global Football Federation. Rongen’s wife, Gail, from whom he’s separated, works for the federation along with her current boyfriend, Alex. Rongen appears to be all sassy after landing, but soon he realizes that he has been handed an impossible job. There’s no way he can make the American Samoa team any better, let alone getting them to score a goal.
Who Is Jaiyah, And What’s Her Story?
It can be said that Jaiyah is the heart of this story. The Fa’afafine (we all learned this term from Next Goal Wins, I suppose) is an integral part of the team and is adored by everyone on the island. For Rongen, seeing a non-binary person playing for a male football team is obviously a surprise, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone in Samoa, as everyone is treated the same on the island. Jaiyah and Rongen get off on the wrong foot thanks to the coach deliberately calling her Johnny, i.e., her birth name. However, the two eventually make up when he apologizes to her for being grossly insensitive. In fact, the two soon develop a bond, and Jaiyah starts helping Rongen recruit players who might just do the job for the team. While the duo manages to bring in some of the old players, like Rambo, who currently works as a policeman, their attempts to get former goalkeeper Nicky Salapu go in vain. Salapu happens to be the same goalkeeper who conceded 31 goals in that fateful match, but what most fail to notice is that he also saved a lot more than what he conceded.
Does Rongen Manage To Bring About A Change In The American Samoa Football Team?
Unsurprisingly, Rongen doesn’t have it easy, but slowly he starts to find the groove and manages to instill some belief in the team. His relationship with Tavita and everyone else on the island also improves a lot, and he starts seeing the goodness in all these people. He still gets baffled by the Samoan culture at times, especially when Tavita requests that he stop the football practice on Sundays due to activities at the local church. In a perfectly placed, hilarious cameo, Taika plays the priest of the church and also the narrator of this story.
The credit for Rongen’s sudden change after his initial tantrum certainly goes to Jaiyah here, not to mention. Rongen also starts seeing her as someone who’s like his own daughter. We see the man constantly listening to his daughter Nicole’s voice texts, which clearly implies that he terribly misses his family. It’s only during the climax that we find out that Rongen lost his daughter in a freak car accident, and that eventually cost him his marriage as well, as he couldn’t recover from the tragedy and went on a downward spiral.
Does The Team Finally Manage To Turn The Table?
Tension rises as American Samoa’s all-important away game against Tonga draws closer. With their newfound confidence, the Samoans travel to Tonga in search of what Tavita has been wanting since eternity—one goal. Nicky Salapu has come back into the fold as well, this time looking determined enough to rewrite his fate. Rongen is elated to see Gail after a long time, who is in Tonga to attend the game along with Alex and other people from the Global Football Federation. Gail and Rongen still seem to share an affectionate bond, although she makes it very clear that she has moved on and insists he should do the same.
Just before the game starts, Alex breaks the “good news” to Rongen—that he no longer needs to stay on the island and the federation is going to find him a proper job. Sadly, Rongen clearly doesn’t want that anymore, as he clearly cares about the islanders—much more than he thought he would. Rongen does the right thing by not breaking the news to the team. He also comforts Jaiyah, who is having a breakdown thanks to quitting her hormone medicine, something she did just so she could play better on the field. To push Jaiyah further, Rongen presents her with the captain’s armband as well.
The team starts off well but soon loses the plot and concedes one right before halftime. Rongen doesn’t hide his frustration and starts throwing tantrums on the field and then in the dressing room. He is shocked when the team and Tavita confess that they’re not able to perform because of the stress Rongen is putting on them. Infuriated and heartbroken, Rongen decides to quit midway, but Tavita manages to bring him back. He finally reveals to the team that it is he who has been the loser, as he has been trying to get away from his daughter’s death. Apologizing to everyone, he urges the team to go on and enjoy the game, no matter what the end result is.
Rongen’s heartfelt speech seems to have a great effect on the team, as they soon manage to achieve the most coveted prize: scoring a goal. This makes Tavita so happy that he suffers a heat stroke. By the time he wakes up, the match has ended, and it couldn’t be more dramatic, as Tavita’s son and Samoa’s star player, Daru, narrates the story of the rest of the match. As fate would have it, it had to be Jaiyah who scored the winning goal and clinched the first-ever win for American Samoa. For the lowest-ranking team as per FIFA’s world ranking, this was a staggering feat. And all that happened thanks to their indomitable spirit, as well as the man who now considers him one of their own, Thomas Rongen.
What Is The Impact Of The Win?
As we get to know from Next Goal Wins‘ end credits, American Samoa never went down to the last place in the world ranking after their historic match against Tonga. Even though they failed to capitalize on the win and went on to lose their next game, as well as the one after that, that one win did change the course for them. It managed to make them believe in themselves and give them a lot of hope. And the joy it brought for the people of the island is infinite, as we see a lot of celebration.
For Rongen, it finally helped him come to terms with his own tragedy and accept it. During the match against Tonga, we see the man wearing Nicole’s baseball cap throughout the game, which is both a sign of letting her go and honoring her. Life can only get better for the man, from this point. And his decision to turn down an offer from the LA Galaxy football club and choose to spend some time outside of the sport is clearly a symptom of that.
And Finally, How Much Of It Is True?
Despite all the Taikaism, Next Goal Wins remains a pretty faithful adaptation of the real events. Next Goal Wins never mentions that Nicole was Rongen’s stepdaughter, but considering his love for her, it really doesn’t matter. Jaiyah also happens to be the first and only non-binary athlete to play in the World Cup qualifier. Last but not least, Nicky Salapu, who conceded all those goals more than two decades ago, still captains the American Samoa team.