When thinking of sport and the smaller Pacific island nations, the ball game that tends to come to mind is rugby. After all, Fiji’s men’s team are the reigning Olympic champions in Rugby Sevens and can give some of the best teams in the world a decent run for their money in rugby union. Soccer, however, is a different matter.
This is why the sporting world hardly knew what to make of the match played between Australia and American Samoa on April 11, 2001. The game ended in a record-breaking 31-0 defeat for the American Samoan team. The world’s sporting press scoffed and moved on, but there was more to the story of the team than met the eye.
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Now, New Zealand director Taika Waititi has spent the last several years making a film about the team’s exploits. After a raft of snags in production, Next Goal Wins will finally see the light of day in cinemas in the near future. Here’s what we know so far.
Next Goal Wins: The Plot
Next Goal Wins does not actually tell the story of soccer’s most notorious defeat. In truth, there wouldn’t be much to tell, as the circumstances of the game were highly unusual. As it turned out, all but one of the coach’s first team picks could not obtain passports to go to Australia for the match, and the first eleven ended up being composed mostly of inexperienced teenagers. The result was inconsequential, as the game was a meaningless World Cup qualifier. Much of the post-match coverage centered around Aussie forward Archie Thompson, who scored a world record 13 goals, rather than the American Samoans’ performance.
Instead, Waititi’s film recounts what happened afterward. The development of soccer in American Samoa was always beset by problems with infrastructure, including the lack of facilities and professional opposition. The 2001 defeat meant they were saddled for years by the moniker of the worst soccer team in the world. Although to be fair, at one time, American Samoa ranked 203rd out of 203.
Next Goal Wins concerns the team’s quest to win a game against real opposition — a feat they finally achieved in 2011 against near neighbors Tonga. And while qualification for the World Cup may always be a bridge too far for a territory that counts its population in the tens of thousands, the team’s pluck and tenacity have proved to be a singular source of pride for supporters and neutrals alike.
Next Goal Wins: The Cast
20th Century Fox
The quintessential underdogs of world soccer were given a helping hand by Thomas Rongen, a fixture of American soccer who played in the North American Soccer League in the 1980s before becoming a coach. Rongen is played by Michael Fassbender, whose most recent film work, Kung Fury 2, remains in post-production. The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss also appears, and newcomer Kaimana will appear in their debut feature role as Jaiyah Saelua, who became the first openly transgender footballer to play in a World Cup qualifier when they turned out for American Samoa during Rongen’s tenure.
The supporting cast includes Rachel House (who voiced the role of Gramma Tala in Moana), Rhys Darby (Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle), Angus Sampson (Mad Max: Fury Road, Mortal Kombat), and The Expanse’s Frankie Adams, among others. Several cast members have worked with director Waititi in various films, most notably 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok (in which House played the part of Topaz), but also in the comedy adventure Hunt For The Wilderpeople, whose showing the previous year did a great deal to bring Waititi to a wider audience.
When exactly Next Goal Wins will see the light of day remains a source of uncertainty. In fact, it’s fair to say the production has seen its fair share of troubles.
After being picked up by Fox Searchlight, filming got underway in Honolulu in late 2019 and wrapped in January the following year. However, no release was forthcoming. While the Covid pandemic may have had something to do with it, in late 2020, it was speculated that the Next Goal Wins’ release was being put on ice while cinema attendance stabilized in multiple markets after that year’s lockdowns. Nothing more was heard until December last year, when it was revealed that Armie Hammer’s scenes were to be re-shot with Will Arnett (A Series of Unfortunate Events).
No reason was given by the makers, but the allegations made against Hammer by several women of abuse in 2021 are well documented and resulted in several productions ceasing involvement with the actor, as well as his being dropped by his agent. The fact that Hammer’s role was rewritten and expanded would appear to point to significant tinkering with the film in post-production.
Recently, it was reported that the film will not be released until 2023.