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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.

American Samoa footballers Nicky Salapu and Jaiyah Saelua with their coach Thomas Rongen. Photo: Getty
American Samoa footballers Nicky Salapu and Jaiyah Saelua with coach Thomas Rongen. Photo: Getty

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.