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Of bad players and good losers

Taika Waititis "Next Goal Wins"

Their relationship is somewhat difficult at the beginning: Jaiyah (Kaimana) and Thomas
Their relationship is somewhat difficult at the beginning: Jaiyah (Kaimana) and Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender)

Of bad players and good losers

With "Next Goal Wins", director Taika Waititi brings the incredible story of the American Samoa soccer team's failure to cinemas. A frustrated coach and a talented trans woman are at the center of this feel-good movie with a twist.

Thanks to films such as "Thor", "Suicide Squad", "Avengers: Endgame" and "Jojo Rabbit", New Zealand director Taika Waititi is also known outside of his role as the man alongside Rita Ora. In his latest film, instead of the usual superheroes, he now turns his attention to a group of anti-heroes who make up the unsuccessful American Samoa national soccer team. They hold a less than glorious record. On April 11, 2001, the team conceded 31 goals in a World Cup qualifier against Australia without conceding a single goal. To this day, this is the highest defeat in an official international match. But this is another way to write sporting history, which is now coming to cinemas years later as a comedy based on a 2014 documentary.

Soccer president Tavita (Oscar Kightley) was actually expecting a little more when US coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is transferred to the small island in the South Pacific to get the local team up to speed for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. At least one goal should be scored by his team, is the modest claim of the permanently optimistic club boss. But even that seems almost impossible, as the choleric and dogged Rongen is up against a team of largely unfit amateur footballers who rarely hit the target.

The only sporting ray of hope in this chaotic bunch is Jaiyah (Kaimana). As strange as her participation in the men's team may seem, it couldn't be more normal for members of the Polynesian culture. The trans people there, called fa'afafine, are firmly anchored in American Samoa society. Something that the grumpy Rongen has to get used to.

Between fiction and realism

Taika Waititi and his co-author Iain Morris take a lot of liberties with the content and enrich the already bizarre story with fictional elements, but use the names of real people, focusing on Tavita, Rongen and Jaiyah. The story of the Fa'afafine in particular and the different, positive view of people like them in their culture is touching and makes the unfortunately still widespread trans-hostility in this country seem even more ridiculous. Apart from that, it is important for Waititi in the role of a priest to emphasize right at the beginning of the film that the following story is not about a white man showing an indigenous group the ropes.

Traditional dances are part of the training.

The indigenous team members merely serve as comic extras for hilarious training scenes, which of course are not to be missed. Driven by a grim Rongen, who has a dark side to him thanks to his sad past, they stumble and bumble across the soccer pitch, often clumsily and often weighing several kilos, which doesn't bode well for the upcoming qualifying match.

Feel good movie for gloomy days

The viewer learns nothing about the relationships between the individual team members, but can watch as Rongen and Jaiyah slowly grow closer and something like friendship develops between them. Waititi is undoubtedly less interested in telling the sporting component of the story. Rather, it is the overcoming of interpersonal rifts that he focuses on in "Next Goal Wins", which makes the film a real feel-good movie.

Otherwise, however, the whole thing remains quite superficial in large parts and certainly falls short of the expectations of Waititi fans. You also don't quite buy Michael Fassbender's supposedly comedic role, which underlines the effect that it is unclear what the film actually wants to be. A sports comedy, an anti-hero motivational film or an emotional drama about losers and winners of hearts?

The humanizing aspects and the impressive scenic shots can certainly transport you to a better place for 103 minutes on dull January days like these. And that alone is perhaps worth a trip to the movies.

"Next Goal Wins" opens in German cinemas on January 4.

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