Michael Fassbender in Next Goal Wins (2023)

‘Next Goal Wins’ movie review: Taika Waititi football comedy misses the net

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A Dutch-American football coach attempts to turn around American Samoa’s football team after the worst defeat in World Cup history in Next Goal Wins, which opens in Czech cinemas this weekend. This spirited comedy from director Taika Waititi is initially a lot of fun, but its sentimental climax turns cloying and artificial, and the film ultimately fails to make that pivotal final shot.

Next Goal Wins has a wealth of great material to draw from, as depicted in Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s 2014 documentary of the same title. The American Samoa team really did suffer a 31-0 loss at the hands of Australia during a 2001 World Cup qualifying match, earning them headlines across the globe as the world’s worst football team.

Coach Thomas Rongen, enigmatically played by Michael Fassbender, was hired to lead the team in a World Cup qualifying bid in 2011. He credited the American Samoa team with saving his life after suffering a personal tragedy years earlier, something that Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris (The Inbetweeners) obscure throughout Next Goal Wins in efforts to save for a third-act reveal.

And Jaiyah Saelua, played by Kaimana in Next Goal Wins, made history by becoming the first openly transgender athlete to play in a World Cup qualification match. She started for American Samoa in their World Cup qualification bid in 2011, and played a key role in their success.

Waititi didn’t have to do much to turn Next Goal Wins into an rousing and inspirational movie along the lines of The Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks, or Cool Runnings; this true story has all the elements needed to make this a compelling sports film.

And in early scenes, the director’s trademark offbeat comedy is on full display as good-natured Tavita Taumua (Oscar Kightley), president of the Football Federation American Samoa, tries in vain to inspire his team to score just a single goal. Later, Fassbender’s Rongren is amusingly dressed down by American football (er, soccer) officials played by Will Arnett, Rhys Darby, and Elisabeth Moss (playing Rongren’s wife).

Rongren’s initial fish-out-of-water scenes in American Samoa, portrayed as a nation so small even the football association president has a side gig as a cameraman, are often a riot. The first half of Next Goal Wins features some genuine laugh-out-loud moments as the new coach assesses the pitiful state of his team, including a moment when Rongren points out that Tavita has a keyboard and mouse on his desk, but no computer monitor.

But the comedy is slowly drained from Next Goal Wins as story takes over, and exposition shorn from the earlier scenes is dutifully laid out during the climax. By the end, Waititi doesn’t even seem to be interested in telling the inspirational sports story; the climactic game is jokingly recounted via flashback, which serves little other than to pull the audience out of what should have been an exciting finale.

Next Goal Wins also missteps in its treatment of Saelua. While all the other characters – Rongren, Tavita, and her teammates – are seen through a comedic light, every scene with Saelua is deadly serious. The filmmakers may have been dissuaded from portraying her in lighthearted fashion, but by placing her on a pedestal they miss the chance to humanize her character.

Still, there’s enough fun to be had in Next Goal Wins to warrant a mild recommendation, and audiences that haven’t seen the earlier documentary may be especially impressed by this incredible-but-true story. This is a miss from Waititi after earlier successes like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok, and Jojo Rabbit, but a step in the right direction on the heels of Thor: Love and Thunder.

Next Goal Wins

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

One Response

  1. I had a great time with this movie. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, if you want the true story watch the documentary. Fassbender is great as always and the locations (on Hawaii, not American Samoa) are gorgeous. Just a fun time at the cinema.

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