Wed, May 21, 2014 - Page 19 News List

FEATURE: Film on ‘worst team ever’ celebrates love of soccer

AFP, WELLINGTON

American Samoa players huddle in an undated screengrab from Next Goal Wins, a film about the exploits of a team once ranked as the worst in the world.

Photo: AFP / “Next Goal Wins”

As the world’s top soccer nations prepare for the FIFA World Cup next month, a new documentary celebrates how the sport’s worst team, American Samoa, bounced back from a record 31-0 defeat.

The film, Next Goal Wins, tells how an unlikely squad that included soccer’s first transgender player, a psychologically scarred goalkeeper and a chain-smoking Dutch coach restored the tiny Pacific nation’s pride in the game after their 2001 humiliation against Australia.

When London-based filmmaker Mike Brett began work on the project in 2011, the American Samoan side had languished at the bottom of the FIFA rankings for their entire 17-year existence, losing all of the 30-plus matches they contested.

The low point was their 31-0 loss to the Socceroos in 2001, when striker Archie Thompson contributed 13 goals to the most lop-sided scoreline ever recorded in an international match.

Nevertheless, American Samoa kept turning up at tournaments, even as their roll of shame lengthened after defeats such as their 11-0 loss to Fiji in 2004, 15-0 to Vanuatu in 2007 and 12-1 to the Solomon Islands the same year.

Brett and co-director Steve Jamison became intrigued by the Pacific amateurs who kept coming back, despite the heavy losses and scorn poured on them.

“That 31-0 result is like the punchline to a joke or the answer to a pub trivia question,” Brett said. “We wanted to go behind the headlines and tell the human story.”

Brett and Jamison were keen amateur players that ended up filming advertisements for sports brands such as Nike and Adidas. After working with top clubs like Barcelona and Arsenal, Brett said they became jaded as the commercial side of the game lost its luster.

“We slightly fell out of love with the game that we remembered from when we were kids and when this came along it was an opportunity to really go back to our roots,” he said.

To do this they first had to persuade American Samoa that they were not planning a mockumentary that would take cheap shots at the team’s already wounded pride.

“We had to explain to them that we weren’t looking to take the mickey,” Brett said. “We were genuinely in awe of these guys, who were clearly in love with the game so much that they’d play for 17 years straight without winning a single match. It says something about the purity of their commitment to the game and their utter unwillingness to give up, even in the face of defeat after defeat.”

Once they had gained the team’s trust, the filmmakers got to know a fascinating group of individuals desperate for redemption on the pitch. Among them was defender Jaiyah Saelua, who was born John Saelua and recognized by FIFA as the first transgender player in international soccer.

Saelua is a fa’afafine, part of a Polynesian tradition which — in her words — recognizes that someone born male can have a woman’s spirit. A transgender player may attract prejudice in some teams, but Saelua’s teammates who grew up with fa’afafine treated her like any other player.

“I’m just a soccer player, even though I run like a girl,” she says in the movie. “I’m not a male or a female, I’m a soccer player.”

Then there is Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper traumatized by the 31-0 defeat, who said he woke up at night a decade later reliving the experience of picking the ball from the back of his net time after time.

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