What's it like when Thor director Taika Waititi makes a film about you managing the world's worst football team?

Andrew Headspeath
Tribeca Drive-In/ESPN: Next Goal Wins - 2014 Tribeca Film Festival
Tribeca Drive-In/ESPN: Next Goal Wins - 2014 Tribeca Film Festival / Rob Kim/Getty Images
facebooktwitterreddit

There have been painfully few good films about football. Well, films that aren't documentaries anyway.

Some have cult appeal, while others fall into a sort of guilty pleasure bracket and perhaps the strongest (see The Damned United and Bend it Like Beckham) feature pretty limited amounts of actual football.

However, while the beautiful game waits for its own Raging Bull, there is hope on the horizon in the form of the upcoming Taika Waititi project Next Goal Wins.

The film by the New Zealand-born director of Jojo Rabbit and Thor Ragnarok will be an adaptation of the brilliant 2014 documentary of the same name, which followed FIFA rankings bottom-dwellers American Samoa and their gruffly charismatic new Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen in search of a first-ever competitive victory.

That underdog story, made by British duo Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, struck a chord with football fans and those with little to no interest in the sport alike for its celebratory tone, cast of inspirational characters and near pornographic shots of the Polynesian landscapes.

For those who loved the doc, news of a feature film adaptation helmed by Waititi and starring the likes of genuine A-listers like Michael Fassbender and Elisabeth Moss has brought intrigue and anticipation.

90min caught up with coach Rongen - these days an analyst for beINSports and CBS - nearly a decade on from his American Samoan adventure to discuss his memories of leading the team, chatting casting with Waititi and being played on screen by Fassbender.


"Hey mate, it's Taika, I'm going to have my fat bastard friend Russell Crowe play you.' Really, that was his opening line!"


How did the new film adaptation of the Next Goal Wins story come about and when did you first learn about it?

"I remember when it [the documentary] came out in 2014, it got some attention Tim Cahill and the Rock came to see the movie and so did Taika Waititi. 

"I remember Mike [Brett] and Steve [Jamison] saying 'wow this guy wants to make a movie'. They were all excited, but then that died down for a bit while he went off to make Thor...but throughout the process Taika stayed in contact saying he still wanted to do it.

Cast of Next Goal Wins poses for a portrait at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival
Cast of Next Goal Wins poses for a portrait at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival / Larry Busacca/Getty Images

"And then last year, I got a call... 'Hey mate, it's Taika, I'm going to have my fat bastard friend Russell Crowe play you.' Really, that was his opening line!

"Then he called me a few weeks later and said, ‘my fat bastard friend Russell Crowe is too fat, so I’m going to have Michael Fassbender play you.'"

Do you care how accurate Fassbender's portrayal of you is?

"No, I’m not bothered. If he can become half 300 and half...what's the war movie with Brad Pitt? Inglourious Basterds. [laughs] If it's a combo of those two, I’ll be flattered!"


Were you on set for the filming?

"It was filmed last year in Hawaii. Mike and Steve went as guides to help the integrity of the movie. I was supposed to go too and teach Fassbender that slide tackle sequence because he wanted to do it himself but that never happened.

"I don’t know how different to reality the film will be. We haven’t talked about content. I’d like to ask Steve and Mike what they’ve seen.

Rob Kim/Getty Images

"But I think maybe they know me and my personality and I might’ve walked through the set going ‘what the fuck is going on? That didn’t happen!’ 

"Obviously though, they are gonna create some things and change things...so, maybe it’s best to keep the Dutchman away!"


What's Taika Waititi's football knowledge like? Is he a football fan?

"He told me ‘I don’t know fuck all about soccer!’ He’s a rugby guy. But the beauty of the film is that it goes beyond sport.

2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Radhika Jones - Arrivals
2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Radhika Jones - Arrivals / Karwai Tang/Getty Images

"I know they've brought in a lot of Polynesian actors. Guys who have rugby movies before so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

"But Taika is a very interesting filmmaker, with a dark humour and one of the great things is that, as he told me, he's from that part of the world, that culture. He gets it and he can poke fun a little bit and it will be understood.

"I think he will do it justice."


As a Dutch coach, how did you come to be involved with the American Samoa team back in 2011?

"I had long standing relationship with US Soccer. I was the head scout for the men’s national team for two years. I've coached four MLS teams...so my relationship with the upper brass has always been good.

"And they asked me 'Thomas, do you want to help a country...an overseas territory of the US, American Samoa?' I had to ask my wife to check where American Samoa was and I thought 'oh my God!'

"I'm an adventurous person and I've been pretty much everywhere except Antarctica but that was one place I had never been to, so I said 'yes, I'll do it'

"But it was only then after I started doing research that I started to learn about the 31-0 [American Samoa hold the record for the biggest international defeat, vs Australia in 2001] and I went to the FIFA rankings to look for them and they were last. Then I realised this was going to be an...interesting opportunity."


The slide tackling scene in the rain is one of the most iconic moments of the documentary. What are your memories from that day?

"When it rains there, it really rains!

"I woke up that morning and everything was underwater and I was grappling with what to do for training and it was actually my wife who said 'how about slide tackling? You always told me that in the rain it doesn't hurt as much.'

"And so we practised the art of slide tackling and it ended up being spontaneously one of the best team-building exercises.


"I went to the FIFA rankings to look for them and they were last. Then I realised this was going to be an... interesting opportunity.""


"In the film they only showed one scene but it went on for two hours and it was an awesome experience that brought the whole group together.

"What you don't see though is that the field has lots of little rocks and after a while players were getting cuts on their skin and that became a warrior cry like 'everyone, let's do some bleeding!'

"There are quite a few more clips that aren’t shown [in the documentary] that show my unconventional style, which I think comes from my upbringing in an environment that was all about creativity raised in the hippie era in Amsterdam."


Where does the win over Tonga [American Samoa's first ever in a competitive match] rank in career achievements?

"The best. The best for all the reasons.

"It was the first time that these guys won a game, their first goal, first win in a World Cup qualifying game - that's pretty cool!

"Football isn’t the number sport on the island - they send more players to the NFL than any other country per capita - but after that win we get the governor with his wife coming over and I’m on FIFA TV and there's interest from all over the world. We get this groundswell of interest. 

"We also had the first transgender, third gender player [Jaiyah Saelua] in a FIFA game and after this we travelled the world after this, talked about LGBT issues and equality in soccer.


""From an emotional standpoint it was awesome, from a competitive standpoint it was awesome. This surpasses everything else I've ever done.""


"I had all those things in my head when we won but just for sheer elation I was so happy for one player in particular Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper - who had played in the Australia 31-0 game.

"I took a gamble on him because he was older, he works in Seattle climbing poles for AT&T, but while he was with us I used his story everyday for motivation because he's talked about it, he gets recognised sometimes and his son thinks he's a failure.

Nicky Salapu in American Samoa's 31-0 defeat to Australia
Nicky Salapu in American Samoa's 31-0 defeat to Australia / Darren England/ALLSPORT

"So I hugged him after the game and he says ‘you know what coach my son is going to think I’m a hero’. Those are things you just can’t translate.

"From an emotional standpoint it was awesome, from a competitive standpoint it was awesome. This surpasses everything else I've ever done."


facebooktwitterreddit