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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.