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Next Goal Wins: The incredible true story behind Taika Waititi’s film

Michael Fassbender plays football manager Thomas Rongen in the comedy-drama

Michael Fassbender stars in Next Goal Wins
Michael Fassbender stars in Next Goal Wins. (Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios)

Director Taika Waititi has swapped the mighty hammer of Thor for an uplifting sports drama in his new underdog tale Next Goal Wins.

The film is based on an incredible true story which itself was captured in the 2014 documentary of the same name. Inviting Michael Fassbender along for the ride, Waititi has given the story a few dramatic embellishments to make it a more well-rounded popcorn cinema experience - but what's the real story behind the events that inspired Next Goal Wins?

Let's have a look.


Is Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins based on a true story?

Kaimana and the cast of Next Goal Wins
The football film is based on a remarkable true story. (Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios)

Next Goal Wins is inspired by a real incident where the national football team of American Samoa lost a match to Australia 31-0. For a long while afterwards, it was largely considered to be one of the biggest losses in professional football.

The match itself took place in 2001 but the team had been playing since 1994. Despite spending almost a decade on the pitch before facing Australia, they were yet to win a single match, having played 30 games and lost every one.

The fateful match that instigated the Next Goal Wins story took place in April at the Coffs Harbour International Stadium. It was a World Cup qualifying match, with the successful team bagging themselves a spot in the 2004 World Cup which was set to be hosted in Japan and South Korea.

As we all now know, that didn’t happen for the American Samoa team - far from it.

Their loss was not just an epic public embarrassment, it also set a new world record for the most goals scored in an international game, with the award going to their rivals, Australia. “The players were laughing at the end,” explained Australia player Archie Thompson after the match. “There wasn’t much more they could do.”

While it was undeniably not a great outcome - the very fact that the American Samoa team got to play the match at all was lucky in itself.

Following FIFA-implemented rules, the team faced several issues including the footballing body demanding passports from each of their players. This small request immediately ruled 19 of their 20 stars out of the match.

With many of their sportsmen on the bench, a new team was quickly put together but it was far from great.

Michael Fassbender and Kaimana in Next Goal Wins
Michael Fassbender and Kaimana in Next Goal Wins. (Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios)

Two of its newcomers were only 15 years old; many weren’t used to playing for a full 90 minutes and others weren’t professional sportsmen at all and were juggling day jobs with their time on the pitch. According to reports from people who were in attendance, some players didn’t even have the right shoes for the occasion.

Naturally, things didn’t go well. At one point, Australia had scored so many goals, that the match counter lost track, incorrectly displaying a score of 32-0.


How did the American Samoa football team turn things around?

Thomas Rongen attends the premiere of Next Goal Wins
Thomas Rongen was brought in to boost the team's morale. (Invision/AP)

The result was deemed to be the worst loss in international football history and a massive indignity on the team and its morale. However, despite suffering this loss, they refused to give up and continued playing football, determined to re-write their own story.

As a result, they set themselves the goal of trying to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and hired a Dutch-born, American-based coach named Thomas Rongen to help them turn things around. In Waititi's movie, Rongen is played by Fassbender.

Before he crossed paths with the American Samoa team, Rongen had spent time coaching in America and had won the MLS Coach of the Year award in 1996. As if helping the ‘worst team in the world’ turn themselves around wasn’t enough of a challenge, Rongen soon discovered that he had just three weeks to whip them into shape.

Thankfully, the team’s expectations were low. All they really wanted to achieve was to not lose a match by more than 10 points. This was something their new coach could certainly help with.

Thomas Rongen, Jaiyah Saelua and Taika Waititi attend the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival
Rongen with footballer Jaiyah Saelua and director Taika Waititi. (Getty)

“Technically and tactically, they were not well arranged. I thought I could make a few tweaks, but I’m not sure you can do anything big in three weeks.” he told sporting outlet The Athletic.

“The most important part, where I gave the most thought, was the mental side. I knew I was going to walk into a team that had not won in their lifetime and was expected to lose. They talked about hoping not to lose by more than 10. There was also something beautiful about that, as well — these guys love and want to represent their country regardless.”

As a result, Rongen managed to get the team to a better place both physically and mentally.

While the American Samoan team ultimately failed to make it to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, they did manage to restore faith in themselves and their talents, honourably bowing out of their qualifying match against Tonga with a 2-1 score.

Before this match took place, they even managed to beat Tonga 2-1 in a match that was extra significant as it marked the first time they’d ever actually won a game.

As it turns out, no team from the Oceania Confederation made it to the World Cup that year anyway, so they weren’t any worse off than any of their fellow competitors.


Next Goal Wins will be released in UK cinemas on 26 December