In ‘Next Goal Wins’, the former DC United coach gets the Hollywood treatment

During his world-class soccer career, Thomas Rongen learned how important it was to have his name on the team sheet.

So when the former DC United coach learned that Taika Waititi was adapting the 2014 documentary “Next Goal Wins” into a dramatized film, giving a slice of his life a Hollywood treatment, he waited to hear who the director would choose to star in the cast and show him on big screen. In 2019, shortly before the film went into production, Waititi broke the news to Rongen.

“He actually said, ‘I wanted my good friend Russell Crowe to play with you first, but Russell Crowe is too old and too fat, so I chose a better guy, Michael Fassbender,’” Rongen recalled during a recent video chat from South Florida. , where he works as a broadcaster for MLS team Inter Miami. “I thought, ‘Magneto?’ And he replied, “Yes, Magneto.”

“It was a really cool moment where we get an answer to a question we’ve been asking ourselves in various situations: who could play me in a movie? The answer is: Michael effin’ Fassbender.

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Four years later, Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” will be released in theaters on Friday. The story follows Rongen, who in 2011 led American Samoa, a territory in the South Pacific with a population of approximately 55,000, during World Cup qualifying. At that point, the task was particularly unenviable: American Samoa had gone winless in its 17-year history, finished last in FIFA’s 204-team rankings, and suffered its worst defeat in international soccer history (31-0 to Australia over ten years). . before). Rongen, a Dutchman who won the inaugural MLS Coach of the Year award, led DC to the 1999 MLS Cup title and had just led the U.S. Under-20 National Team, was an unlikely candidate for an unenviable job.

Waititi said he was in post-production on his 2016 drama “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” when he watched the documentary “Next Goal Wins,” directed by British filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. A New Zealand-born rugby fan with an occasional interest in soccer and a penchant for offbeat comedy, Waititi was surprised when the documentary’s long-term narrative and focus on Polynesians captured his imagination.

“It seemed like it would be a lot easier than me to come up with a new idea,” Waititi said with characteristically dry wit. “All the elements of an uplifting underdog movie are there.”

Meanwhile, Waititi’s stock has skyrocketed: The filmmaker established a strong box office presence with the 2017 Marvel comedy “Thor: Ragnarok” and won an Oscar for the 2019 Nazi satire “Jojo Rabbit.” But that wasn’t before he moved on to a slew of blockbusters on his plate — including the superhero sequel “Thor: Love and Thunder” and a secret Star Wars project — Waititi gathered a small cast and crew in Hawaii from November 2019 to January 2020 to shoot “Next Goal Wins,” a scripted co-wrote with English screenwriter Iain Morris.

After briefly considering a more fact-based approach to the material, Waititi concluded that the documentary had already served this purpose. So in the spirit of the oral tradition of Polynesian culture, in which stories are passed down through song, dance and spoken word, Waititi turned “Next Goal Wins” into more of a “fairy tale.”

“It’s really cool, the idea of ​​telling stories your own way, the way you heard them and how they affected you,” Waititi said. “Then they have a life of their own and can kind of take off and the characters can become larger than life.”

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Waititi said that this was his way of giving Rongen an early warning: “I’m going to f***ing have fun with this, bro.” The finished film confirms this in the first moments, when the fourth priest breaking down the walls – played by Waititi – tells the viewer to expect embellishments. When Rongen first saw Waititi’s film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he admitted that the creative license had him reeling from the moment his character appeared.

In this opening scene, Rongen’s ex-wife (played by Elisabeth Moss) is on the committee that fires him from his job as coach of the US soccer team. In fact, Rongen noted, he and his wife were still married and she did not work for the United States Soccer Federation. “Next Goal Wins” later shows Rongen initially rejecting Jaiyah Saelua, a player who identifies as fa’afafine – the third gender in Polynesian society – and became the first openly transgender woman to play in a World Cup qualifier. “I absolutely accepted Jaiyah from day one,” Rongen explained with a shrug. “I’m Dutch – I’m a liberal.” To complement the character’s grim image, the film gave the fictional Rongen problems with alcohol and a hot temper that the real, extremely likable Rongen did not have.

“At first I became a bit of a villain and [Waititi] he told me he would do it,” Rongen said. “But I still think it’s genius.”

For Waititi, the decision to imbue Rongen’s character with something of a redemption arc was an easy one.

“Who wants to watch a movie where everyone is nice and there are no conflicts?” Waititi said. “You have to have these villain characters. If The Karate Kid was just Daniel and another really nice kid who also did karate and they didn’t hate each other, what would be the point of watching it?”

Still, Rongen found plenty of authenticity on screen. He said Fassbender, the Oscar-nominated star of “Steve Jobs,” “12 Years a Slave” and four X-Men films, “he plays a very good Thomas Rongen with a twinkle in his eye” – even if the two have not met yet. He also recognized the cathartic journey of grief and healing that his character goes through as he immerses himself in the spirituality of American Samoa, and pointed out various seemingly bizarre moments in the film that actually had their origins in real life.

This opinion was shared by center back Saelua, played by fa’afafine actor Kaimana. Saelua praised the way “Next Goal Wins” evokes the Polynesian lifestyle and captures the complexities and struggles of a fa’afafine athlete.

“The essence of the documentary was transferred into the film – the sense of culture and community and the love for the game that we have here,” Saelua said. Discussing her own on-screen portrayal, she added: “Kaimana’s experiences with her transgender identity and all of her experiences with her fa’afafine identity, all of these experiences are as accurate as my own – not in the timeline, the film takes place, but through all my life.

Strengthening the role of Saelui, who eventually becomes Rongen Fassbender’s surrogate daughter, the film deals with a tragedy that Rongen was still facing during the events depicted in the film: the death of his stepdaughter Nicole Megaloudis in 2004 in a car accident when she was a freshman soccer student. soccer at Virginia Commonwealth University. Like Rongen in 2011, the character poignantly wears a VCU cap during the climactic World Cup qualifying matches between American Samoa and Tonga.

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about death,” Rongen said during the interview, wearing another VCU hat. “Many people don’t want to talk about burying a child. AND [Waititi] I was actually a little surprised by the way he did it.

As American Samoa prepares to begin qualifying for the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada, Rongen revealed that the territory’s soccer federation has offered him the opportunity to return as coach. With less than a year left until the first qualifying round, he said he would make a decision in the coming months whether he would return for the second round of qualifying in the South Pacific.

“Resources are limited, so they are still struggling with this,” Rongen said. “But I wouldn’t go there to necessarily win – I would go there to experience it.”

What does Waititi think about getting material for a sequel?

“It’s a fantastic idea. He should definitely do it,” said the director. “They love him there and he loves them.”


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