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"Next Goal Wins" - Between clumsiness and team spirit

The American Samoa national soccer team is considered one of the worst in the world. Nevertheless, it will be competing in the World Cup qualifiers.

Can the team achieve the impossible?
Can the team achieve the impossible?

Based on a true story - "Next Goal Wins" - Between clumsiness and team spirit

The small island of American Samoa holds an unpleasant record: with a score of 31 to 0, the national team of the US foreign territory conceded the highest defeat in an official soccer competition against Australia.

Inspired by the true story, 'Jojo Rabbit' director Taika Waititi's new, enjoyable comedy 'Next Goal Wins' tells the story of how the perennially losing team still manages to qualify for the World Cup. All hope is pinned on a choleric coach from the USA, whose role is played by Michael Fassbender after a long break from the big screen.

When the new coach Thomas Rongen arrives on the island in the South Pacific, he is not only dragging a broken suitcase, but also a series of private problems behind him. These spice up Waititi's colorful feel-good flick with occasional dramatic moments. The screenplay, which he co-wrote, is based on the 2014 documentary of the same name.

Not necessarily in form

The team Rongen meets is a far cry from a professional soccer team. The players regularly miss the target and are quickly out of breath. This provides plenty of material for funny scenes. In keeping with this, the individual characters are often exaggerated, which makes them appear less authentic.

"One goal" is the group's modest goal for the World Cup qualifiers. The quirky, over-optimistic president of the soccer association - played by Oscar Kightley - repeats it like a mantra, especially to the newcomer from the USA. After the first few training sessions, however, he is no longer interested in the job. Rongen often shouts around angrily and almost always has a paper cup in his hand, into which he tips bottles of spirits.

New terrain for Fassbender

It is noticeable that Fassbender is not your typical comedy actor. The films before he took several years off the screen - during which the 46-year-old was also a racing driver - tended to be darker. His second new production, "The Killer", is also no light fare as an action thriller. In his leading role in "Next Goal Wins", the German-born Irishman therefore sometimes comes across as too serious - even though his character actually has a sad family history within him.

We hardly learn anything about most of the players in his team, nor about their relationships with each other. Here the film focuses on Jaiyah, the defensive player who was born biologically male but lives as a woman. In American Samoa culture, this gender is called "Fa'afafine" and is fully accepted in society. The role is played by Kaimana, who delivers a remarkable performance. It's nice to see a major film production bringing the culture of the small island to the public's attention.

Another face that viewers see more often is that of Elisabeth Moss ("The Handmaid's Tale"), who plays Rongen's ex-wife. Will Arnett ("Arrested Development") is also part of the cast, taking on a role originally intended for Armie Hammer. The US actor had left a number of projects due to allegations of abuse. Last June, however, the public prosecutor's office in Los Angeles announced that it would not press charges against him due to a lack of evidence.

"Next Goal Wins" is hardly about soccer per se. In a trailer for the comedy, director Waititi himself says: "I went into it without knowing anything about soccer. And by the end of the movie, I knew even less."

The gags are simple and often seem to be simply strung together, but they certainly elicit a laugh or two from the audience. "Next Goal Wins" is very entertaining, but also remains superficial. Nevertheless, at the end you can't help but root for the soccer team to score the much-anticipated goal - because Waititi takes the artistic liberty of not retelling the true story down to the smallest detail.

Next Goal Wins, USA 2023, 105 min., FSK from 0/o.A. years, by Taika Waititi, with Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley

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