No one has probably said less in as much time as Taika Waititi in his latest film, Next Goal Wins. In the movie, adapted from a documentary of the same name, Waititi’s writing erodes the natural qualities of a heartfelt story about a Dutch coach training the American Samoa football team for World Cup qualifiers. Never emerging beyond the stereotypes it seeks to dismiss, Next Goal Wins comes across as an empty shell of its original intentions and ideas.
Set in 2011, ahead of the World Cup Qualifiers, Dutch-American football coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), is forced to reinvigorate the world’s worst football team — the national team of American Samoa. No sooner than Rongen arrives at the island nation does the film begin to unravel the tensions that stem from white men coming to save indigenous players. Rongen, disinclined to coach the team, doesn’t take time to get to know his players and dismisses them as losers. While Rongen’s behaviour comes from his character, there is little that justifies why the script also tends to follow in his ignorant dismissive footsteps.
Next Goal Wins (English)
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane
Runtime: 104 minutes
Storyline: In 2011 a Dutch-American football coach tries to turn around the luck of what is considered the worst football team in the world, with just four weeks left for the World Cup Qualifying matches
During an ongoing training session, the team abruptly sits down to pray, and Rongen storms to Federation president Tavita’s (Oscar Kightely) office and quits. Tavita explains that they will not deny who they are for the sake of winning. “These are our customs!” he adds. Unfortunately for the film, the pride in these customs and traditions and how they get intertwined within American Samoa’s dream of playing international football is never given its due. The team players and the larger American Samoan community are more often than not processed through the eyes of Rongen, leading to a very unbalanced and boring script.
It is shown earlier on in the film that the team faced its worst defeat in 2001 when it lost against Australia 31-0. Since then, Tavita has dreamed of the team scoring “one goal, just one”. Yet, neither Tavita’s hope nor the team’s motivations for the sport get space in the over 90-minute runtime.
Take any other successful sports film about an underdog team, and its journey gets inevitably intertwined with the personal journeys of the team players. Their passion propels the team to victory. The American Samoa national team wins its first World Cup qualifying match against Tonga after four weeks of training with Rongen. However, when the scene gets wrapped up, a stranger team wins, evoking little emotion. Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), the first transgender player to play in a World Cup Qualifying game, is the only team member the film is interested in exploring. However, even she gets ignored unless she interacts with Rongen.
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Next Goal Wins is a lesson in complacent writing, wherein the script is more focused on cramming in an awkward joke about the eccentricities of the indigenous culture. Any emotional heavy lifting that happens is due to the nature of the story, despite such a script. Barely showing the hardships the team has had to overcome, the film seems more interested in detailing the personal growth of Rongen. Next Goal Wins fails to justify its existence when it struggles to champion, or even show basic interest in the stories of the people it portrays.
Next Goal Wins is currently running in theatres