The fascinating true story behind Taika Waititi’s ‘transgender’ soccer movie Next Goal Wins

Two soccer players face off in underdog movie Next Goal Wins

A new film from renowned director Taika Waititi is bursting with transgender representation, as he chronicles how the national football team of the territory American Samoa tried to make the 2014 World Cup.

Titled Next Goal Wins, the movie follows Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen, played by Michael Fassbender, as he tries to take the underdog team of American Samoa and whip them into shape before the World Cup.

The national team of American Samoa was considered to be one of the worst teams in the world at the time after losing a game to Australia in 2001 by 31 goals.

Alongside Fassbender, it stars Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett, and Elisabeth Moss.

Next Goal Wins offers some rare onscreen representation of Polynesian culture as well as featuring a non-binary actor who plays a Samoan transgender football player.

Is Next Goal Wins a true story?

Taika Waititi speaking at the Next Goal Wins charity premiere
Waititi is known for writing and starring in Our Flag Means Death. (Getty)

Yes, Next Goal Wins is based on a true story – though real life is often more complex than what you see in films.

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It is based on a 2014 documentary of the same name directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison.

During Next Goal Wins’ international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Waititi said: “I saw the documentary a few years ago and I thought it was a story I had to tell and twist it… Otherwise, you might as well watch the documentary.”

In real life, the American Samoa team did not make it to the World Cup in Brazil that year, but they did score a goal against Tonga and ended a match with the Cook Islands in a 1-1 tie.

They also won a match against Tonga before the World Cup qualifying games, which was their first ever win.

Rongen only had three weeks to get the team ready for the qualifying games for the World Cup, making it a race against time.

What is the meaning of faʻafafine?

The American Samoan team made history for their 31-0 loss as well as their first ever win in a game – but what you might not have known is that the team also was the first professional team to include a transgender player.

Jaiyah Saelua, who is played by non-binary actor Kaimana, identifies as fa’afafine, which is a Samoan word for a third gender.

Most villages in American Samoa and Samoa have fa’afafine, with an estimated several thousand across the different islands.

The BBC estimates between 1 and 5% of the people living in American Samoa identify as fa’afafine. Fa’afafine are usually assigned male at birth but embody both masculine and feminine gender traits.

Waititi previously told PRIDE that there has been a long acceptance of the trans and non-binary community within indigenous Polynesian culture as “a sacred and honoured thing”.

The reaction to Next Goal Wins has been mixed

On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has received an 84% audience score but only a 44% critics score. Meanwhile, reviews by the Guardian and the Observer call it a “much-loved heartwarmer” and a “slapdash but charming crowd-pleaser” but only gave it three stars.

Empire said that Next Goal Wins is “the ultimate underdog story” and “exactly the kind of quirky material that Waititi has always gravitated towards”. However, they also gave it three stars.

Who knows, like many films with LGBTQ+ representation, maybe it will be a slow burner with the critics, but go on to be a cult classic?

In the UK, you can watch Next Goal Wins on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube, for a small fee.

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