Next Goal Wins, screengrab via YouTube

Imagine a fish-out-of-water tale about a divorced American who leaves everything behind to travel thousands of miles from home to work with a struggling soccer team. This coach also constantly makes pop culture references. Sounds like Ted Lasso, right? Not quite.

Next Goal Wins is Taika Waititi’s foray into the sports comedy genre. The movie is based on the 2014 documentary of the same name. In 2001, American Samoa lost to Australia by the hard-to-believe score of 31-0 in a qualifying match for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. This was the worst defeat in an international history. The documentary Next Goal Wins told the story of how coach Thomas Rongen gave hope to an underdog.

How bad was American Samoa? According to the New York Times, since starting international play in 1994, it was 0-30, losing by a combined score of 229-12, and was tied for last in the FIFA world rankings. But thanks to Rongen, American Samoa finally enjoyed a breakthrough in a prequalifying match for the 2014 World Cup.

The movie Next Goal Wins attempts to recapture that spirit in familiar packaging. Waititi’s puts his spin on it with his trademark quirky sense of humor and storytelling. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t doesn’t strike the right tone. When the narrative goes awry or feels clumsy, it gives you a greater sense of appreciation for Ted Lasso.

Michael Fassbender plays the role of Rongen. Like Jason Sudeikis’ Lasso, he is confused by local customs, has difficulty connecting with his players, and hides a secret pain that helps explain some of his behaviors. Unlike Sudeikis’ Lasso, Fassbender’s Rongen is a complete lout. He has anger management issues and is just generally surly. This wouldn’t be an issue for the story if the character was more interesting. Don’t blame Fassbender. The script by Waititi and Iain Morris doesn’t work hard enough to portray a more well-rounded character.

The scenes with the most promise should have been those between Fassbender’s Rongen and Kaimana’s Jaiyah Saelua. But even those moments come with a caveat. As the first openly trans athlete to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, Saelua is the most famous member of the real American Samoa team. In the movie, Saelua is played by a non-binary actor. Kaimana gives the film’s best performance. But Waititi misses out on opportunity by focusing too much on Rongen and not enough on Saelua. Some scenes are cringe-worthy and do not do Saelua justice.

Then there is the odd casting choice of Elisabeth Moss as Rongen’s ex-wife Gail. Moss is immensely skilled, but Waititi gives her very little to do. She has limited screen time, and her talents are wasted. Her brief appearances make you wonder if additional scenes were cut.

Waititi probably had the best of intentions when making Next Goal Wins. There are some funny moments—most are early in the movie. For example, when Rongen gets fired, the comic timing of Rhys Darby is perfect. And there are some genuinely warm scenes, such as Rongen’s “inspirational” locker room speech near the end.

Next Goal Wins isn’t a bad sports movie—we want to embrace these long shots. But Waititi’s filmmaking makes it one that’s not always easy to cheer for.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.