Monday, May 12, 2014

Next Goal Wins

Sunday in our house was all about the football. On Sunday morning I took my daughter Sophie up to her Under 9 league game for South Melbourne Womens FC; on Sunday evening Leah, Arwynn, Sophie and myself went to see the extraordinary football documentary Next Goal Wins at the ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image); and of course on Sunday night at midnight I watched Liverpool FC's desperate last ditch attempt to win the English Premiere League for the first time in nearly 25 years. 
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Sophie's team won the game, Liverpool didn't win the league but in this post I only want to talk about Next Goal Wins, the best documentary I've seen since Man On Wire. NGW is the story of the American Samoa football team who after a drubbing 31:0 by Australia went to last on the FIFA World Football rankings and stayed there for a decade. American Samoa didn't win a single game in all this time and didn't score a single goal. They were rightly called the worst team in the world and then to cap it all a tsunami hit Samoa destroying their pitch and wrecking the town. The Bad News Bears looked like Good Luck Charlies in comparison to these guys. Things only began to change when, after their latest humiliation 8:0 by New Caledonia, the American Samoa Soccer Federation placed a desperate ad on a US Soccer website asking for a coach. Exuberant 50 something Dutchman Thomas Rongen was the only applicant and thus got the job. 
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A third of the way into Next Goal Wins Rongen arrives in Samoa and starts making changes. He introduces the slide tackle, he improves the players fitness and ball handling and he brings back 2 players who have quit the team and moved to America (including the disillusioned goalkeeper from the 31:0 loss to Australia.) He also recruits a player who is 1/2 Samoan but who once played semi professional soccer in Germany, and he gives a first team place to Jaya, a transgender Samoan, who is more of a team mascot & occasional sub but who is the only player who really masters the slide tackle and subsequently becomes the hardest tackling defender on the squad. Rongen has his own demons to conquer: his only daughter was killed in a car crash at the age of 18 and hanging with the religious, laid back, kindly Samoans gradually works a transformation on the hard as nails Dutchman. World cup qualifying looms. American Samoa hasn't won any kind of game in 17 years and has never won a FIFA sanctioned event. The players of American Samoa only want to avoid disaster, maybe get a single goal. . .so what happened? Well, as Borges says: humiliation, unhappiness & discord are the ancient foods of heroes... 
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If Next Goal Wins doesn't make the shortlist for best documentary at next year's Oscars I'll be very much surprised. It's a classic. Trailer below:
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