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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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue