‘Next Goal Wins’ and the Soccer Movie Matrix

We’ve covered the sparsely populated world of soccer movies, but where does Next Goal Wins fit within the fray?

Next Goal Wins, the latest entry in the oddly small “soccer movie” genre, made its theatrical release a few weeks ago to modest reviews and box office figures. The film is centered around the true events surrounding the heartfelt story of the American Samoa national soccer team, and features a pretty solid cast highlighted by its lead Michael Fassbender and director Taika Waititi.

Fassbender plays American coach Thomas Rongen, who is assigned to become the manager of American Samoa. The team is bad — like 30-0 loss to Australia in World Cup qualifying bad. With this backdrop, the team and coach have to learn to trust each other and move on from their past to be able to grow as a team and coach.

next goal wins
Image credit: NEXT GOAL WINS

Fassbender is the star, but it’s the players that are the heart of the film. Jaiyah, a transgender member of the team that also becomes its best player, is my favorite character in both this film and the documentary that it’s based on. In the end it does work, and American Samoa gets a result in World Cup qualifying. The film is easy going and a fun family movie night, but it kind of ends there for me.

At times it can get a little too silly, but as a 33-year-old I am obviously not the target audience. With that said, the film is for the most part true to the documentary of the same name that came out in 2014. Both films have the same truth: through trusting each other, even if it’s someone we just met, we can reach greater heights.

But how does this fit into the greater soccer movie genre? Generally being “good” is a tough barometer for films as odd as that sounds. First off it’s subjective, but more importantly “good” isn’t a trait of a film and when searching for movies, it’s not very helpful.

After a long week, I don’t necessarily want to fire up Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait on a Friday night. It’s non-narrative and pretty artsy; you have to sit down and really watch it. Instead I’d want something like Beckham, an engrossing documentary about one of the best players of his era — easy to follow and dramatic.

To help in your movie decisions, I’d like to introduce you to Urban Pitch’s highly scientific chart that shows a handful of soccer films in relation to each other. We call it the Soccer Movie Matrix. It judges films on two criteria: soccer and story. Pretty simple right?

The y-axis of our chart has to do with how soccer was represented in the film. Was it pretty true to form, or wild and abstract? Goal! would fall closer to the former side of the scale, while Shaolin Soccer would land on the latter for obvious kung fu-related reasons.

The second axis is plot-focused. Is it a more serious and realistic story or a goofy and campy one? Again Goal! being in the former end, while the other would see She’s the Man (classic film), along with other stories that can only exist in a movie. None of this is about what’s “good,” but rather about what type of film it is so you can properly enjoy your soccer films. Below is the chart and a quick blurb on why films ended up where they did!

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Bend It Like Beckham: One of, if not the most well-known soccer movie (David Beckham ends up on this list in some form multiple times). Despite being a comedy, the soccer in it is good. The league may not be real, but the gameplay is realistic and not over done.

Goal!: Let’s be clear. If we’re talking good, the first Goal! film is exactly that, but that’s beside the point. Despite the story being highly unlikely, Santiago Muñoz could be any of us. It also uses real teams and players making it a pretty easy one to place on the chart.

She’s the Man:  A soccer classic. Young Channing Tatum and Amanda Bynes? Let’s go! It’s a story that is on the less serious side, but still highly entertaining.

Big Green: A bit of a throwback, this film is firmly a comedy but smartly uses kids to keep the soccer entertaining and realistic. At this point in time it’s more of a nostalgia watch but still absolutely worth it.

Beckham: A recent release and fun watch. This film documents the legend that is David Beckham. All the footage is real (obviously) but the reason it’s not at the tippy top of the soccer axis is because the show really is more about Beckham the man, not the footballer.

Pele: A Netflix original, this film is about the legend that is Pele and his role politically and socially in Brazil. Similar to Beckham, the film ultimately focuses off the field, and not in a bad way.

Infinite Football: A very unique film and also why it’s out on its own in the chart. How can a documentary be on the less serious side of how soccer is portrayed? By having a main character whose life goal is to fundamentally change the rules of the sport. That’s right, this film follows a man trying to change the game. Laurențiu Ginghină argues that football rules are made for the spectator and not enough focus is given to the players. Ginghină was injured a young age play football and you can feel how personal it is to him.

Where would your favorite soccer movie land on this chart?

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