Taika Waititi’s latest comedy is Next Goal Wins, and — oh no, it’s my imaginary question-asker from my soccer columns. He must have heard that this is a soccer movie and dropped by just to make my life hard. Hey, I wasn’t expecting you till February.
It’s worth it for this. Have you seen the similarly titled 2016 documentary that this movie is based on?
And you call yourself an expert. So, who is Thomas Rongen?
A Dutch soccer guy who fell in love with America. After a stint as a defensive midfielder at the Amsterdam team AFC, he spent most of his playing career with the old North American Soccer League. The script by Waititi and Iain Morris mentions that Rongen was teammates with some of the greatest players in history, and yeah, Johan Cruyff played alongside him with the Los Angeles Aztecs, while Gerd Müller briefly shared a locker room with him for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. After his playing days were over, he started coaching and won MLS’ first ever Coach of the Year award in 1996 with New England Revolution. He spent almost 10 years managing USA’s under-20 men’s team.
Who is Thomas Rongen in the movie?
He’s played by Michael Fassbender, and the film depicts him as a guy who can’t hold down a job because of his chair-throwing sideline temper tantrums. His ex-wife and boss at the U.S. Soccer federation (Elisabeth Moss) fires him in 2011 but throws him a new job out of pity as the head coach of the national team of American Samoa.
Is American Samoa any good at soccer?
Dear God, no. With a population under 50,000, the U.S. possession (which the movie is careful to distinguish from the independent country of Samoa) has turned out a number of great football players like Troy Polamalu and Junior Seau as well as a few top-level sumo wrestlers, but the islands don’t have much talent left over for the beautiful game. In 2011 they were ranked dead last among 204 soccer-playing nations, and still scarred by a 31-0 World Cup qualifying defeat to Australia 10 years before, the most lopsided result in competitive international soccer history.
Thirty-one goals! That’s a soccer game with a football score! How on Earth?
What the movie doesn’t mention is that the Socceroos were trying to move from the Oceania federation into the more competitive Asian federation, and when FIFA brushed them off, they started running up outrageous scores on the likes of Tonga, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands until FIFA cried uncle and gave them what they wanted. American Samoa just happened to receive the worst drubbing. In the movie, Thomas has an unfriendly encounter with two boorish Australia players (Rhys Darby and Luke Hemsworth) who rub the 31-0 score in his face.
So, a movie about an experienced soccer coach trying to train a bunch of no-hopers must be pretty funny, yes?
Mmmm. Writer-director Waititi doesn’t seem all that interested in the sport. He pours more energy into uninspired stuff about Thomas trying to find wi-fi on the island and Samoan federation president Tavita Taumua (Oscar Kightley) having two other jobs and an office with no computer, just a mouse and a keyboard. The movie gives us nothing on the challenges of scouting a bunch of players that you’ve never seen before, determining their strengths and weaknesses, and sculpting tactics around that. Thomas’ whiteboard illustrations look like kids’ doodles.
Is Michael Fassbender funny?
He can be. I’m thinking specifically of his performance as a manic nutcase rock singer in Frank. That madcap role suited him, but here he’s playing someone altogether more conventional, a tightly wound coach who screams at his players like he’s coaching a team of millionaire galácticos in the Champions League final. Thomas is a guy who needs to learn that ball isn’t life, and while our Irish-German lead actor gives it a try, he can’t make the role funny. The business with Thomas mourning the loss of his teenage daughter (whose phone voice is by Kaitlyn Dever) is poorly built up, too.
What is a fafine?
That’s pronounced fa’afafine, idiot. It is a third gender recognized in Samoan culture of people who are born male but have female traits. American Samoa had one such person, Jaiyah Saelua, on their team, and she became the first-ever transgender woman to compete in men’s World Cup qualifying. (You will notice that the sky did not fall in because of that.) She’s played by Kaimana, and some of the most interesting material in the movie comes from Thomas trying to coach a player he has no frame of reference for dealing with. More than that, this character keeps the movie from degenerating into an exercise where the Polynesian people only exist to help the white hero deal with his baggage.
What is a siva tau?
It’s a traditional war dance performed by both Samoan and American Samoan sports teams before matches where they represent their countries. All the Pacific island nations have their own, and if you watch international rugby, you’ve likely seen a siva tau and other dances. Kaimana leads the one for American Samoa before their climactic game against Tonga, and it’s the most inspiring moment of this film.
Have there been any other places to see one?
Yes, in Hobbs & Shaw, The Rock leads a group of Samoan warriors before they face the bad guys.
Should I buy tickets to Next Goal Wins?
The movie may give you the idea to take a winter vacation in Hawaii (where it was filmed) or some other tropical venue. Still, if you’re looking for soccer-related laughs, you’re better off sticking with Shaolin Soccer. If you’re a Waititi fan, this doesn’t generate the pathos of his Hunt for the Wilderpeople or even Jojo Rabbit. His brand of comedy needs a looser and more eccentric framework than this feel-good sports movie to work.
Next Goal Wins
Starring Michael Fassbender and Oscar Kightley. Directed by Taika Waititi. Written by Taika Waititi and Iain Morris. Rated PG-13.