'Next Goal Wins,' the Hollywood treatment, isn't real, and that's OK

Among the most inspiring of soccer tales concerns American Samoa's rise, so to speak, a dozen years ago when its national team, guided by Thomas Rongen, put behind it that record 31-goal travesty a decade earlier against Australia -- and that dead-last position in FIFA's rankings -- by beating Tonga in a World Cup qualifier, its first international victory.
It was celebrated in the delightful 2014 documentary film "Next Goal Wins" and now heads to a multiplex near you, starting Friday, in Taika Waititi's comedy "loosely based" on the documentary and also called "Next Goal Wins."
One needs few fingers to count the number of major Hollywood films about soccer and the people who play the game, and this one arrives with genuine prestige, if muted buzz.
Waititi, a comic auteur from New Zealand with indigenous roots, has won an Oscar (adapted screenplay for "Jojo Rabbit"), been nominated for two more (the Best Picture nod for "Jojo Rabbit" and for a 2005 live-action short) and has made several acclaimed films in the past decade, from vampire farce "What We Do in the Shadows" and coming-of-age comedy "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" to two of Marvel Studios' "Thor" films.
He's a major director with international credibility, and here's his most mainstream offering yet, a beautifully crafted if formulaic take on the traditional underdog tale meant, Rongen says Waititi told him, to be "Ted Lasso" through "Cool Runnings" via "The Mighty Ducks." How well it succeeds is open to, and in the midst of, debate, but it's certainly a crowd-pleaser aiming for a sizable audience, soccer-savvy or otherwise.
Two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender is the star, cast as a peculiar version of Rongen, one crafted to meet the demands of classic, three-act "Hollywood" arc. And there's also Elisabeth Moss, Will Arnett and a sizable Polynesian cast led by Kaimana, a transgender actress portraying Jaiyah Saeula, believed to be the first transgender player to feature in an international match.
"Next Goal Wins" has added value: Its release has spurred the streaming relaunch of the documentary (Nov. 24 on Apple's, Google's and Amazon's platforms, Dec. 1 on Vudu), a vital entry in the sport's film library and something of a counterpoint to the new film. It's where to go to know what really happened, how Rongen took a group of amateurs with limited skills and a 17-year losing streak -- the so-called "worst team in the world" -- and significantly raised their level, but more so the contexts involved: the difficulties of life in American Samoa, a small South Pacific island on the other side of the international dateline from Samoa; its distinct culture, marked by faith and acceptance; and the stories of those at the center.
The version Waititi presents offers all of this, too, but through a very different prism. The overriding story here is largely true. The details, not so much. Pivotal figures have been eliminated -- for instance, Ramin Ott, scorer of the first goal in the 2-1 triumph over against Tonga, and Rawlston Masaniai, a half-Samoan pro recruited from the U.S., both profiled in the documentary -- and new characters were invented, largely for comic effect.
This new "Next Goal Wins" is a "story" that, the press material reminds, is "loosely based" on the documentary, which in turn is an edited tale constructed from what actually occurred. It's not meant to be taken as truth.
"The documentary is a brilliant piece in itself," Waititi told Soccer America at Tuesday night's premiere at The Grove, just south of Hollywood. "For me to tell any story -- to adapt a book even -- I allow myself the ability to change whatever I want, to make it suitable to the style of storytelling that I do and to make the films that I make.
"And so the documentary, that is the inspiration for me, and it always will be, and if you want the true story, watch the doc. It's brilliant, but my film is a type of version [of that story]."
Thomas Rongen, villain
And so Waititi takes great liberties with the story. That's to be expected, and it's not a big deal. That's Hollywood filmmaking -- what, you thought "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the real thing on Freddie Mercury? -- and not only is this film prefaced as "inspired" by real events, it opens with Waititi, as something of a village holy man, beginning the tale by noting what we'll see is true but "with a couple of embellishments along the way." A couple? Uh, yeah.
Ultimately, "Next Goal Wins" is a film about storytelling -- this pastor is a frame, the tale comes from him -- and the story to be told is a good one. It's also a Hollywood film, produced primarily by Imaginarium Productions and released by Searchlight Pictures -- and, like so many before it, relies on tropes and follows a traditional, three-act "arc."
That necessitated a "villain," and Rongen, in terms of dramatic structure, was the ideal choice. An unlikable Rongen, nicely illustrated by Fassbinder, offers a stark contrast to the Samoan community and its culture while providing dramatic impact beyond the core underdog tale. It also sets up a second act in which Rongen can be redeemed, and there's some real truth here, which we'll get to shortly. That leads to the final act, in which the Samoans look for that elusive goal -- and maybe even win? -- against Tonga.
Rongen's depiction is problematic. Here, he's soccer's version of Bobby Knight, a chair-throwing, ice chest-kicking cartoon who was "fired from his last three jobs because he can't control himself." He and his wife (Moss) are separated, she's in a relationship with the smarmy head of the American Soccer Federation (Arnett), and they've, in tandem, fired him from his federation post and offered him a this-or-nothing choice to take charge of this team.
He's an alcoholic who has problems with Jaiyah's presence and mockingly calls her "Johnny," the name on her passport. He derides religion among a most faithful community, and calls his players "losers" -- he later apologizes -- after they're been outplayed and fall behind in the game with Tonga.
None of that is so. Rongen, a Dutchman who has called the United States home for 44 years, played alongside Johan Cruyff in the NASL, was Major League Soccer's first coach-of-the-year honoree after leading the Tampa Bay Mutiny to the 1996 Supporters' Shield, guided D.C. United to the 1999 MLS Cup title, was Chivas USA's first head coach, ran Toronto FC's academy, and was longtime coach of the U.S. U-20 national team. He's a respected coach who serves as a color analyst for CBS Sports and Inter Miami.
In the documentary, he called Gail Megaloudis Rongen, his wife, "my best friend [and] comrade. She travels with me everywhere." He's an atheist, for sure, but attended church with his players (and allowed them to baptize him), finding great solace as he worked on processing the death of his daughter, Nicole. As a proud Amsterdammer, he embodies his native land's tolerance and celebrates Jaiyah and who she is.
"There's a lot of similarities between growing up in downtown Amsterdam and being on that island," Rongen said. "In terms of acceptance. We all know that a transgender [player became the first to play in a] World Cup qualifying game, and Jaiyah Saelua, they embraced their third gender, 'fa'afafine.' And for a guy from the Netherlands -- we're pretty liberal and open-minded, you know -- those were all beautiful things."

Dutchman Thomas Rongen has called the United States home for 44 years. He was Major League Soccer's first coach-of-the-year honoree, guided D.C. United to the 1999 MLS Cup title and was the longtime coach of the U.S. U-20 national team. He now serves as a color analyst for CBS Sports and Inter Miami. Photo: Casey Brooke Lawson

And the Tonga rant? American Samoa never trailed. They doubled their advantage in the second half, and, no, Jaiyah did not score the second goal, as she does in the new film -- although she did make the "goal-line clearance," if not quite so dramatically.
Welcome to Hollywood
"The essence of Thomas is hopefully there," Fassbender said this week on CBS Sports Golazo Network's "Morning Footy" podcast. "Honestly, some of the real crucial backstory of his life is obviously there, but I couldn't say that I did justice to Mr. Rongen. I hope he's not offended. Let me put it that way."
Rongen, no matter what his inner feelings might be, isn't speaking ill of the film. He's worked to promote it, has appeared twice on red carpets (he missed the L.A. premiere because of soccer obligations near home in Florida), and calls it "an uplifting, underdog story that needed a Hollywood twist" and "a great roller coaster ride, a real thrill."
Rongen says he didn't know much about Fassbender, a German-born Irish actor who received Oscar nominations for his performances in "12 Years a Slave" and "Steve Jobs" and is probably best-known for portraying Magneto in three "X-Men" films, before he was cast as Rongen.
"You know, one of those things, we all sit around the table in a bar and get an answer to a question, 'Who should play me in the movie?' " Rongen said. "Well, it's Magneto. It's a guy that had a great role [as a British commando/film critic] in 'Inglorious Basterds' of Quentin Tarantino, [as] Steve Jobs, and Fassbender now is tackling comedy. So Michael Fassbender is playing Thomas Rongen. How cool is that?"
He's not yet met Fassbender, who was unable to do any promotional work on the film during the just-settled Screen Actors Guild strike, but received a text from the actor last week.
"Never spoke to him," Rongen said. "I was supposed to fly out [during the production], actually to help him with some soccer scenes that Taika said he wanted me to. Two days before that and he goes, 'Um, Fassbender is in such a zone, he doesn't want any more outside noise.' And I respect for that. Because as a player, as a coach, you prep in certain ways."
Of Fassbender's performance, he says: "He plays me with a twinkle in his eyes. Same level of cynicism and sarcasm, and it's not overbearing. I think he does Thomas Rongen proud."
Who most loves soccer?
American Samoa's history in the sport dates to 1983 and includes an early victory over non-FIFA side Wallis and Fatuna in the South Pacific Games. The country's federation was founded the following year, and the national team played its first official international match in 1998. It entered World Cup qualifying for the first time ahead of the 2002 tournament, suffering that 31-0 defeat in its third of four first-round games. (Australia beat Tonga, 22-0, two days earlier.)
The Samoans trodded on from there and for years, without a triumph and at the bottom of FIFA's list, more or less unnoticed, the answer to a trivia question. What followed -- Rongen's arrival, at the behest of U.S. Soccer; the victory over Tonga; the last-game drama with the next round of qualifying on the line -- was remarkable, a tale amplified by so many things: Jaiyah's presence, for sure, and that of goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, the 31-goal victim whom Rongen lured back to the national team from Seattle. (And who continues, at 43, to captain the team.) That they weren't very good, nor organized. Nor, clearly, successful. Yet they trodded on, amateurs playing merely for the love of the game and of their homeland.
Were it not for two horrid ankle injuries suffered by a couple of amateur footballers in the UK, this tale likely never would have been unearthed. It'd just be Just Australia, 31-0, and, oh, by the way, didn't they finally win a decade later? Then everybody's quickly on to the next thing.
Mike Brett, an avid AFC Wimbledon supporter from London, and Mancunian Steve Jamison, a currently displeased Manchester United fan, met at Cambridge University, where they were backline mates for the school team, shared an avid interest in cinema, and became close friends. Following graduation, they began a production company, shooting commercials for Nike and adidas and New Balance, working with Unied and Arsenal and Barcelona, and directing the likes of Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Robert Lewandowski.
"The reason that Stevie and I started making even commercials about soccer is within 18 months of one another, we both had the exact same horrific fracture dislocation of one of our ankles playing soccer," Brett told Soccer America last week from London. "We both got nailed together with titanium pins in our ankles and were basically told 'you won't be able to play a decent level of soccer again.' And so we kind of started pointing our camera at the game of soccer instead of playing it."
They shot commercials for a half-dozen years.
"You name it, we shot it," he said. "This was basically our dream come true, too be within these extraordinarily prestigious halls of football filming with some of the greatest players of all time. But there was also an element of ... you know, we always say don't go to a sausage factory if you want to keep eating sausages. Like, once you see the inner workings of the sports industrial complex, of the sports marketing complex, some of the shine comes off that dream as a kid of hanging out with your idols. ... In some ways, our love for the game got a little tarnished through some of that process."

 After playing soccer together at Cambridge University, Mike Brett (left) and Steve Jamison began a production company, shooting soccer commercials.

A recharge was required, and Brett and Jamison mused over "who must love soccer more than anybody else in the entire world?" And "it didn't take us long to sort of realize that it's got to be the team that's played for 17 years without winning a game, having lost one of those games, 31-0."
It was 2011, and the South Pacific Games, the team's first tournament in four years, was coming up.
"There was just me and him and a couple of flight cases with some lenses, and we paid for our own flights to American Samoa on a complete whim," Jamison said at the premiere. "And not knowing what the story would be when we got there, but having an inclination that there was a story that we wanted to tell."
The ensuing documentary would be their first feature film, an enticing prospect, but they were looking for more than that.
"We wanted to go there and learn from them," Brett said. "Learn from them about rediscovering our love for the game, playing the game for the right reasons."
Dealing with demons
They found an instant rapport with Tavita Taumua, chief of Football Federation American Samoa, who invited them to the island and provided free reign to shoot what they desired.
"It's hard to articulate the openness that we experienced when we were on the island and within the team," Brett said. "The funny thing is that the first day we arrived, we were very wary of bringing our cameras up and poking our lenses into people's stories and their lives without first getting to know them. So we didn't bring cameras to the first day of the shoot at all.
"But at the end of the day, when they finished their training session, we took a ball, and Steve and I did what we always do: We started kicking it around, doing some keepy-uppies together, and the whole team came back out onto the field, and we ended up playing a pickup game against the national team of American Samoa. On the first day of the shoot.
"I think that they knew who we were in that moment, and we knew who they were. And instantly we bonded. And Tavita made a speech at dinner that night that we were part of the team from that point onwards, and we would travel with them, we would eat with them, we would be with them."
Rongen arrived later, just ahead of the World Cup qualifiers in November.
"We didn't really know what to expect when we got there," Brett said. "We couldn't believe what happened when we did go there, but it did take us maybe a couple years, in the edit, of finding the film that we wanted to make. And of course, as well, we thought we had half a film in the can. And then Thomas Rongen arrived, which completely transformed the film in every way, in terms of the relationships we saw on screen, the outcome of the games that we saw on screen. And I think the sort of personal emotional journeys of so many of the people that you see on the screen, as well. ...
"We had no idea when we started this process that he was going to arrive or the impact that he was going to have. So that was quite a curveball."
Rongen was a lifer in American soccer, a fine player who had moved easily into coaching and won trophies. Inside, he was broken. He'd never effectively dealt with his daughter Nicole Megaloudis' 2004 death in a car accident, and it haunted him daily.
"If it weren't for American Samoa, I probably would not be talking to you, because Thomas Rongen was in a bad mental state," Rongen told Soccer America. "With [the documentary] now coming back again, it reminds me of the ability for Thomas Rongen to eventually let go and become more spiritual, not religious. One of the things that they taught me was actually by accident. The first training session, it's 4 o'clock, and there's like 12 tribes in the island, and all have these big guns, and they go off at the same time. And it's this harmonious [sound], like music, and everybody stops and the whole team sits on the ground. I go, 'Guys, we're not done.' They go, 'Coach, every day, 4 o 'clock, we have to pray, and, Coach, you could reflect.'
"So I sit down with them. And about the third day, I was able to reflect. The fourth day, in church, I absolutely break down, and I'm able to let go of my demons in regards to my daughter. ... I've been institutionalized, between the loss of my daughter and going to American Samoa, twice. I won't mention by whom. I was ready to take my life. And they showed me the way they deal with death. This is pretty amazing, quite frankly. And as an atheist, I was very conflicted, and I was able to let go. And now when I think of Nicole, I think of her with a smile."

Jaiyah Saelua, the first openly transgender woman and fa’afafine to compete in a World Cup men's qualifying match, is played by Kaimana (right) in the film version.

Rongen calls his time on the island "the most rewarding" of his professional career, but more so personally. And this is where "Next Goal Wins," Waititi's version, prospers. The film is most honest when Fassbinder as Rongen faces these demons, bolstered by the embrace of his team.
"Taika Waititi deals so well with and intertwines religion," Rongen said. "And I'm an atheist, but I embraced their religion, [and then I'm] being dunked underwater halfway through the movie. I'm getting baptized by the team, and Michael Fassbender all of a sudden turns into a spiritual being that now is able to deal with with the loss of his daughter, that I didn't deal with properly for many years. So they probably saved my life, to be real honest with you."

'A bigger scale'
The documentary was greeted enthusiastically, and Rongen recalls its debut at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, and he was "sitting next to the Rock [Dwayne Johnson], who is from Samoan descent, and he was promoting the movie. And next to him is a smaller guy, and at the end of the movie, when everybody goes nuts, he goes, 'I'm going to turn this into a movie.'
"It didn't really register until fast forward to 2019 and 'my name is Taika Waititi.'"
Brett and Jamison realized the commercial prospects immediately. Their film was an inspirational triumph, one with real weight, but, oh, the things that could be done in a narrative feature.
"Steve and I financed that film," Brett said. "We shot that film. We directed that film. We spent two and a half years in the edit suite with that film, and we ended up actually being heavily involved in the sales and distribution of that film, for the marketing of that film and the making of the poster of that film, the trailer of that film. You know, it was a labor of love in absolutely every single way, the documentary.
"But the truth is we always saw the potential for it to be made on a bigger scale. I know it feels like a niche story, but it felt to us like classic Hollywood when we were watching it unfold in front of us. You know, the extraordinary three-act structure is literally there in front of you. And we very much leaned into that sort of movie structure when we were cutting the documentary, because we felt that it was a super satisfying narrative arc that was there in real life.
"I don't mean to sound arrogant, but we weren't enormously surprised that people saw in it the potential for a remake almost as soon as it started screening at places. So we had several approaches from studios and individuals and other production companies who were interested in the remake rights and saw that potential for a bigger version of the film."
Imaginarium Studios, from the outset, wanted Brett and Jamison to participate as producers. "Whereas there are other people, the bigger studios and so on, who were saying, 'Look, we want to buy the rights to this film, we want to say, "Thank you very much, here's a check and goodbye." ' And that was not something that I think we could have done. And I think we're really glad that we were allowed to be and able to be close to that process."
They met Waititi in 2015 in Hawaii, where he was editing the widely acclaimed "Hunt For the Wilderpeople." That was the beginning of the "creative conversation" about what the film could be.
Waititi became a big name soon after, with the release of "Wilderpeople" and then "Thor: Ragnarok."
"Taika's trajectory was extraordinary," Brett said. "Obviously, he went on to do the Thor movies. He won an Oscar for 'Jojo Rabbit.' And he was always a star, but he became an absolute megastar over the period that we were prepping and developing this feature film. I think what was great was that we met before that happened, and he kind of showed a real enthusiasm for and commitment to the material and the story. You're just never sure when someone's star burns that brightly, whether they will ever find time to come back to that project that you discussed all those years ago. And he did."

Taika Waititi has won an Oscar (adapted screenplay for "Jojo Rabbit"), been nominated for two more (the Best Picture nod for "Jojo Rabbit" and for a 2005 live-action short) and has made several acclaimed films in the past decade.

The feature narrative was shot in 2019 but delayed by the COVID pandemic and Waititi's work on last year's "Thor: Love and Thunder." As producers, Brett and Jamison helped find the right "home" for the film -- they wanted Searchlight all along -- then were available as a sounding board during the production.
"We always said to Taika, you know, 'Make the film that you want to make, please don't feel that we're looking over your shoulder desperate that you just mimic the documentary that we made,' " Brett said. " 'We made the film that we wanted to make and that period, that's done. You need to make the film that you want to make."
They were fine with the changes Waititi made to the story and to the characters, both real and imagined, and with his wish to "turn it into much more of a Hollywood movie."
"That's cool. That was always cool with us," Brett said. "This is 100 percent Taika's film. The creative choices that were made were all his. And I think that's exactly as it should be. ... We never wanted to get in the way of his creative instincts. Having made your own version of that story, there's a risk that you get too close to it and you become too in love with the version that already exists, which we are, and with all of the people that we know from that documentary, who are dear friends of ours.
"We always tried very much to sort of be clear that we were giving Taika the creative space to make exactly the movie that he wanted, but we would always be on hand to have a conversation or offer some advice if he wanted it. I think that's the only way. You can't have too many people trying to steer the ship, and it wouldn't have been right for us to try and influence further than that."
They also served as coaches, assessing each actor's [as well as extras' and stuntmen's] abilities on the field, figuring out who could deliver what was needed at certain moments -- a pass, a cross, a shot -- and choreographing the action. Making them into fine players wasn't the aim.
"They all have to be pretty bad soccer players for the majority of the film," Brett said, "but you definitely need to be able to triage who can do what with the football at their feet, right? Because someone is going to have to stick the ball in the top corner, or someone's going to have to play a through pass, or someone's going to have to execute a sliding tackle perfectly, or badly, or both."
Making the documentary, he said, "was a life changing experience, and it's one I'll think fondly of for the rest of my days," and its re-release offers an opportunity to find a new audience for the film.
"It was always a regret of ours that it was our first film," Brett said. "We were unknown filmmakers. We were making a film about a pretty niche subject, and maybe not as many eyeballs were on the original documentary as there could have been. And we're really excited now that this is not not just an opportunity for people to see the film again, but also to sort of follow football in Oceania. When the World Cup qualifiers come around, like follow, see the progress of American Samoa."
Qualifying in Oceania for 2026 begins next September. Brett and Jamison plan to be there; they assisted Larry Mana'o, Rongen's assistant in 2011, during the 2017 qualifiers, when American Samoa won two games -- over Tonga and Cook Islands -- but failed to advance from the first stage on goal difference.
So does Rongen, if he can make it work.
"I've coached many teams, but I stay more in touch with the members of that team than any other team I've ever coached," Rongen said."And that tells you something. There was a real connection there going both ways. And you're the first one to know, although I haven't said yes yet, I don't think the circle is round yet. They've asked me to come back for the next qualifying round, And I'm really considering that because my American soccer story, I feel, is completed.
"You know, from Pelé and Johan Cruyff, fast forward to the [1994] World Cup, MLS, Beckham, and I'm calling games for Inter Miami and doing Messi. So that circle to me is completed right now. Is the outside-of--U.S.-football and personal circle completed yet? I don't think so. And I have a real strong feeling that I have to give back more to that island and those beautiful people, because what they've done for me."

4 comments about "'Next Goal Wins,' the Hollywood treatment, isn't real, and that's OK".
  1. Derek Mccracken, November 17, 2023 at 6:13 p.m.

    Props to Scott French on such a substantive and touching article. I don't come across these worthwhile pieces very often. Looking forward to watching the documentary and movie.

  2. John Foust, November 18, 2023 at 11:33 a.m.

    Very much concur Derek, and am also looking forward to viewing both - thanks Scott!

  3. Esfandiar Baharmast, November 22, 2023 at 11:11 a.m.

    Simply incredible and beautiful!!!. Thank you Scott French for capturing the soul and spirit of the game we love, with your heartfelt article.

  4. James Geluso, November 26, 2023 at 9:25 p.m.

    I feel like my whole year's subscription was worth it just for this article. 

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