Is Next Goal Wins a true story? Taiki Waititi’s sports comedy entry to TIFF follows underdog football squad

The football biopic about coach Thomas Rongen is based on a documentary but takes creative liberties

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Next Goal Wins, an underdog football biopic about American Samoa’s attempts to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, is a heartfelt true story from acclaimed director Taika Waititi

The film premiered at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sunday (10 September) where it received a standing ovation, and will be released in cinemas in November.

Next Goal Wins stars a host of well known names including Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Will Arnett, and Elisabeth Moss, as well as actors with a lower profile, including David Fane, Beulah Koale, Kaimana, and Uli Latukefu.

The film’s stars were absent from TIFF due to the ongoing Hollywood actors’ and writers’ strikes, but director Waititi was present. He said that despite playing with the facts a little, Next Goal Wins is ultimately a true story.

Michael Fassbender stars as Thomas Rongen in Next Goal WinsMichael Fassbender stars as Thomas Rongen in Next Goal Wins
Michael Fassbender stars as Thomas Rongen in Next Goal Wins

Is Next Goal Wins a true story?

On the whole, the film is a true story, based on real people and events, and inspired by a 2014 documentary of the same name. However, the film’s director and co-writer, Taika Waititi, whose other films include Jojo Rabbit, and Thor: Ragnarok, said ahead of its TIFF premiere, “I had to twist the truth”. 

The film follows the efforts of Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen to lead the men’s American Samoa football team to qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

American Samoa joined FIFA in 1998 and have been regarded as one of the worst ranked teams in the world since. In December 2011, the month after their first qualifying match, they were ranked 186th out of 205 teams.

Rongen, played in the film by X-Men star Michael Fassbender, came on board as coach in 2011, with the aim of making the team into a formidable squad, raising its reputation and winning qualification for its first World Cup in history. 

It also includes the story of Jaiyah Saelua, a trans woman and centre back for the American Samoan team. She is the first trans woman to have competed in a World Cup qualifier. She is played by non-binary actor Kaimana in Next Goal Wins.

Taika Waititi directed Next Goal WinsTaika Waititi directed Next Goal Wins
Taika Waititi directed Next Goal Wins

American Samoa had attempted to qualify for the three previous World Cups before Brazil 2014 - they were unsuccessful on each occasion, losing all 12 of the qualification matches played across the three tournaments. In the 2002 qualifiers, American Samoa played Australia and lost 31-0, setting a world record for the biggest loss in an international football match. 

In 2014 the team faced three of the other lowest ranking clubs in the Oceania Football Confederation - these were the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Tonga - meaning that a defeat of similar proportions was far less likely. 

Did American Samoa qualify for the 2014 World Cup

No. But it must be said, the team did show signs of improvement - instead of coming last in their group as had been the case in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 qualifiers, American Samoa came third (out of four), with four points from one win, one draw, and one loss. 

This was four points more than the team had got in all of its previous World Cup qualifiers combined. 

And the score lines weren’t too embarrassing either. They started well, beating Tonga 2-1 in their first match, but then things went downhill. They drew their next match 1-1 with Cook Islands, and went on to lose their final qualification match 1-0 to Samoa.

Nor has American Samoa they have not managed to qualify since. They improved in 2018 when, in the exact same group, they beat Tonga and Cook Islands but lost to Samoa, coming in second position. 

They withdrew from the 2022 Qatar World Cup over ongoing Covid travel restrictions, and are yet to play their qualifying matches for the 2026 World Cup.

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