American Samoa footballers Nicky Salapu and Jaiyah Saelua with coach Thomas Rongen. Photo: Getty
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Next Goal Wins: a football film with a vital message about overcoming transphobia in sport

A new documentary about the American Samoa football team (who hold the world record for the biggest international defeat – 31-0 to Australia in 2001) gives hope that professional sport won’t always be prejudiced against those who are different.

Until very recently, I was pretty certain that I’d never watch a film that would appeal to me as both a Nottingham Forest supporter and a lesbian. Actually, I’d probably never even imagined such a thing. Before I saw Next Goal Wins, my loves of crushing football underdogism and all things queer had never quite intersected.

Released last month, Next Goal Wins is a British documentary about the world’s worst international football squad and the mad Dutchman who believed in them. In 2001, American Samoa broke an unfortunate world record. Their 31-0 defeat by Australia will probably last a long time in sporting history as the worst ever. Goalkeeper Nicky Salapu was left so haunted by the loss that he’d challenge his blubbersome white whale, Australia, to a rematch every evening via video game. And still lose.

With the 2014 World Cup qualifiers looming like a Forest fan over her post-match misery pint, a single win for American Samoa (who seem to have never scored a goal) is looking impossible. Then, all of a sudden, something comes bounding out of Holland in the shape of lovably zealous coach Thomas Rongen. Rongen, who looks a bit like Donald Sutherland, proclaims a new era for his adopted team by (Dutchly) climbing to the highest point on the island and shouting some stuff.

The Hollander’s transformation of the team is utterly captivating. Rongen, whose teenage daughter tragically died in a road accident, is motivated by his own sense of loss. This drive, paired with the team’s bullish refusal to give up on the sport that they love makes for some fairly hefty lumps in throats.

But, Rocky-esque sports movie narrative aside, Next Goal Wins is about a hell of a lot more than football. Centre-back Jaiyah Saelua is the first transgender person to compete in a men’s World Cup qualifier. Saelua is what’s known in Samoa as fa’afafine, or belonging to a third gender. In fact, this kind of gender nonconformism is celebrated in Samoan culture. Saelua’s identity is never an issue. She’s a skilled defender, and that’s all that matters to her teammates and her manager. But, in the context of international football, Saelua is an underdog within an underdog, and I have never admired a sportsperson more.

Next Goal Wins isn’t your average feel-good sports film; it’s important. Men’s sport is one of the final frontiers of homophobia, transphobia and all related phobias of difference. Earlier this month, Michael Sam made American football history by coming out as gay. He was the first ever NFL player to do so, and many thought he’d put his career at risk. Predictably, a lot of burger-brained sports fans are having trouble reconciling gayness with the hyper-hetero world of muscle-bound men rolling around in mud together.

As you may have guessed, in spite of their monumental improvement, American Samoa probably aren’t going to be winning the World Cup anytime soon. Tiny as they still may be, they’re a rainbow over an abattoir. Saelua and her teammates are emblems of hope to queers and Forest fans alike.

And, if you happen to be reading this, Mr Rongen, if you fancy Mary Poppins-ing your way over to England’s East Midlands, there’s a team there who could use some Dutch courage.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad