TIFF 2023: Next Goal Wins Review

Dutch-American soccer manager Thomas Rongen’s (Michael Fassbender) life is spiralling out of control. He can’t manage his temper, and his frequent outbursts cost him his marriage and a few coaching jobs. As a courtesy, the American Soccer Federation gives Rongen one last shot to redeem himself and ships him to the nation of American Samoa (population 45,000) to resuscitate their dying international soccer program. 

Soccer isn’t in the nation’s blood, and their sad-sack international squad hasn’t scored a goal… ever! Given the task at hand, no respectable coach would accept the position. But Rongen is in no position to decline the opportunity. His presence is a recipe for disaster. 

You might think you’ve seen this type of plucky underdog sports movie a thousand times before. And you would be right, mostly. The kicker here is that director Taika Waititi inverts the usual white saviour narrative; it’s the cantankerous and alcoholic coach Rongen who needs saving. He may have a winning mentality on the pitch, but he arrives on the island as a defeated man. 

Who can blame him? He’s inherited one of the worst international squads ever assembled. 


In 2001, Australia destroyed the American Samoa soccer team in a FIFA World Cup qualification match. Their soul-crushing 31-0 defeat turned American Samoa’s soccer team into an international laughingstock. 

Fortunately for Rongen, the club’s manager, Tavita (Oscar Kightley), doesn’t ask for much. All he wants is for the team to score a single goal. That sounds easy enough, except the team’s players are far from elite athletes (most of them have day jobs). However, what they lack in skill and athleticism, they make up for with heart. To succeed, Rongen must see the bigger picture and learn to embrace his players’ eccentricities. 

Next Goal Wins knows exactly what type of movie it is and doesn’t strive to break the mould.  It unabashedly leans into underdog sports movie cliches, going so far as to recreate beloved moments from iconic films.  

You know where things are headed from the opening frame (especially if you watched the 2014 documentary), but in Next Goal Wins’ case, it’s more about the journey than the destination. It’s all presented through Waititi’s distinctive comedic style. If you enjoyed Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, his latest work will be as soothing and familiar as easing into a warm bath. 


Waititi used to be one of the internet’s darlings, but people soured on him as of late. If you don’t enjoy his irreverent style, nothing in Next Goal Wins will change your mind. For better and for worse, this movie offers peak-Taika. 

Like most of his films, the story and its characters are so over-the-top ridiculous you can miss out on the film’s melancholic undercurrents. The film’s most ridiculous character, a clownish priest (played by Waititi), represents the religious dogma foisted upon the Samoan people by its colonizers. 

The story also touches on sexual identity, representation, and grieving. But what I most appreciated about the film is how it distinguishes between losing and accepting defeat.  

Winning is hard, and yet failure happens all too easily. Winning takes hard work, struggle, and quite often, a lucky break. Failure though, has a 100% success rate once you commit to it. There’s comfort within that certainty because what cuts deeper than giving it your all and still coming up short? That’s why a fear of failure is enough to keep people from going after a win. 


Losing stokes the flames of imposter syndrome, fuelling that searing voice in our head insisting I’m not good enough and can’t win. 

In Rongen’s case, losing on and off the field shattered him when he had no one to pick up the pieces. He starts the film as a fractured version of his former self, a defeated man. The problem isn’t that he lost too many times; it’s that he stopped trying to win.  

There’s an African proverb that states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The phrase is a beautiful summation of what Rongen experiences over the course of the film.  

Life broke him when he stood alone, but now there’s strength to be found within his American Samoa community, especially among his squad. They’re a unit bound by what they love, and there’s joy and limitless resilience found in that connection once he’s willing to embrace it. 


Next Goal Wins is an inspiring crowd-pleaser brimming with sharp writing and endearing characters, but it’s not the comedic virtuoso’s best work. Rather than push himself outside his comfort zone, Waititi doubles down on his signature style. But that’s a minor criticism in my book because even middle-of-the-road Taika Waititi movies are immensely satisfying. 

Next Goal Wins had its World Premiere as part of TIFF 2023.
Head here for more coverage from this year’s festival.