The middling response to the foreign release of Taika Waititi’s latest is one of the more puzzling critical phenomena of the year. Without reading the particulars – a good critic doesn’t do that before writing his own review – we can only assume the collective antipathy for the movie has to do with the downshift in Waititi’s ambitions from recent fare like Jojo Rabbit and the Thor movies. But a little soccer movie must be met on its own terms, and only a failure to do that could explain why someone’s heart wouldn’t be warmed by Next Goal Wins.

This image released by Searchlight Pictures shows David Fane, left, and Michael Fassbender in a scene from "Next Goal Wins." (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Searchlight Pictures via AP)

The specific thing Waititi offers, which few of his contemporaries can, is the unique sensibilities of a New Zealander, specifically a Maori. The delightfully surprising line deliveries, the outlook unmuddied by cynicism, the depicting of human foibles without demonising them … these all transplant well to the New Zealand-adjacent Pacific Islander milieu captured here. Rather than this being a disappointing choice for Waititi, it seems like a movie he was born to direct.

Next Goal Wins is the story of the American Samoa national soccer team, which by 2011 has spent years as the lowest ranked team in international competition, ever since an historic 31-0 drubbing at the hands of Australia in the 2001 World Cup qualifiers. That beatdown lives on in the collective consciousness of a territory 57,000 people strong, who love their soccer but don’t have an innate sense for its strategies and nuances.

Enter Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a tempestuous coach who has been dismissed from numerous assignments for throwing chairs on the sidelines and the like. His American employers give him the option of either being out of a job, or coming to coach the American Samoa team. He hasn’t the slightest interest in that position but has even less interest in being unemployed. The CEO of the Football Federation of American Samoa (FFAS), Tavita Taumua (Oscar Kightley), has a seemingly modest goal in mind for Rongen: “Just one goal.” (It’s a phrase that gets repeated humorously throughout, like an incantation.) See, American Samoa is so bad that it has never even scored a goal in international competition.

If this seems like a setup for a standard inspirational sports comedy, well, it is. More than one film of this kind is made every year. Earlier in 2023 we got Champions, where Woody Harrelson was the disgraced coach, and the hapless team from which he was trying to coax greatness was a group of intellectually challenged basketball players. A more direct comparison might be the old film Cool Runnings, in which John Candy had to teach a bunch of Jamaicans how to bobsled.


But so what? There’s a reason this is one of the sturdier movie templates out there. And if you wouldn’t like to see Taika Waititi’s take on it, I question your love of fun.

A few early details bring us into Waititi’s world and show us what to expect. When Rongen is being fired by a panel of Americans which includes Will Arnett and an underused Elisabeth Moss, it’s Waititi’s Kiwi mate Rhys Darby who takes Rongen through a series of slides on one of those old overhead projectors, shuffling through the five stages of grief as Rongen rapidly progresses from one to the next. After Rongen gets off the plane in American Samoa, he’s greeted by Tavita Taumua, but not in his official soccer capacity – rather, in his role as cameraman for the island’s most popular TV show, “Who’s on the Plane?”, in which disembarking passengers are interviewed for their potential to spice up local life. American Samoans all have lots of jobs, he explains.


If you’re not laughing yet, it means you probably haven’t laughed at Waititi’s other efforts. He’s not only about generating the yuks, though. There are a variety of local characters – players, former coaches, the mother and son who run the police department – adding plenty of humour, but the character who stands out most is far more poignantly conceived. This is the trans actor Kaimana as Jaiyah Saelua, who is a fa’afafine – the Samoan name for those who don’t conform to traditional gender roles, and who are generally beloved. Jaiyah was born a boy, making her currently eligible to compete, but she has plans to transition to female on a biological level. The challenges Jaiyah faces – first and foremost from Rongen himself – are handled intelligently and sensitively, and Kaimana gives a really engaging portrayal of the first transgender player ever to compete in a World Cup qualifier game.

It’s nice to see Fassbender having so much fun after the empty vessel he was required to play in David Fincher’s The Killer. Fassbender’s comedic instincts are probably underrated, and he puts them to good use in this fish-out-of-water role. Some of his expressions of disbelief defy description. He’s also hilarious in a scene where he is being aggressively rough-housed by a couple retired Australian footballers, one of whom has the 31-0 score tattooed on his chest. Yep, Waititi gets in his good swipe at his big brothers next door, whom he presumably resents (since that is required of New Zealanders).


In a funny opening introduction that he gives in the role of an island priest – remember, this is a primarily Christian territory – Waititi explains to us that these events are inspired by a true story … with a few embellishments. Next Goal Wins tells the story it wants to tell extremely well, so you resist looking into what those might be. The outcomes of the matches are a matter of record; other details are presumed to have been finessed to fit this formula more perfectly. There are a few moments, here and there, where something seems to be occurring for narrative convenience, like an outsized desire by Rongen to quit on his team when they are actually showing quite well by their standards.


Dramatic licence is required in any such retelling of real events, and when it produces this much consistent laughter, we are even more willing to accept it. Given the inferior quality of Waititi’s second Thor movie, Next Goal Wins is even more of a return to form for the director. He started out his career gently lampooning characters he obviously loves, and he’s gotten back to that and then some. This Goal is a winner, alright.


Next Goal Wins is currently playing in cinemas.

8 / 10