Thomas Rongen has learned, over the course of a globe-trotting soccer career, the importance of locking in the first name on the team sheet.
In ‘Next Goal Wins,’ a former D.C. United coach gets the Hollywood treatment
“He actually said, ‘I wanted my good friend Russell Crowe first to play you, but Russell Crowe is too old, too fat, and I picked a better guy named Michael Fassbender,’ ” Rongen recalled during a recent video chat from South Florida, where he works as a broadcaster for MLS team Inter Miami. “I went, ‘Magneto?’ And he went, ‘Yeah, Magneto.’
“That was a bit of a badass moment where you get an answer to a question we’ve all done in different settings: Who could play me in a movie? The answer is Michael effin’ Fassbender.”
Four years later, Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” arrives Friday in theaters. The tale follows Rongen during his 2011 stint guiding American Samoa, a South Pacific territory of some 55,000 people, through World Cup qualifying. At that point, the task was particularly unenviable: American Samoa was winless over its 17-year history, slotted last in FIFA’s 204-team rankings and the victim of the worst loss in international soccer history (a 31-0 shellacking against Australia a decade earlier). And Rongen, a Dutchman who won the inaugural MLS coach of the year award, steered D.C. to the 1999 MLS Cup title and had just led the U.S. under-20 national team, was an unusual get for an unenviable job.
Waititi said he was in postproduction on his 2016 dramedy “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” when he watched the “Next Goal Wins” documentary, directed by British filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. A New Zealand-born rugby fan with a casual interest in soccer and a proclivity for making offbeat comedies, Waititi was caught off guard when the documentary’s long-shot narrative and centering of Polynesian people sparked his imagination.
“It just seemed like it would be so much easier than me coming up with a new idea,” Waititi said with characteristically dry wit. “All of the elements of an uplifting underdog sports movie are right there.”
In the intervening years, Waititi’s stock skyrocketed: The filmmaker established his box office bona fides with the 2017 Marvel romp “Thor: Ragnarok” and won an Oscar for 2019’s Nazi-lampooning satire “Jojo Rabbit.” But before tackling a slew of buzzy blockbusters on his plate — the superhero sequel “Thor: Love and Thunder” and a secretive Star Wars project, among them — Waititi gathered a small cast and crew in Hawaii from November 2019 to January 2020 to shoot “Next Goal Wins,” which he co-wrote with English screenwriter Iain Morris.
After briefly considering a more fact-based take on the material, Waititi concluded that the documentary already served that purpose. So in the spirit of Polynesian culture’s oral tradition, 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, this idea of just retelling stories in your own way, the way that you’ve heard them, how they’ve affected you,” Waititi said. “Then they have their own life and they can sort of spin off and the characters can become larger than life.”
Waititi said he thus gave Rongen an early warning: “I’m going to be f—ing playing around with this, bro.” The finished film acknowledges as much in its opening moments, when a fourth wall-breaking priest — played by Waititi, no less — tells the viewer to expect embellishments. When Rongen saw Waititi’s movie for the first time in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, he acknowledged that the creative license threw him for a loop from the moment his character appeared.
In that initial scene, Rongen’s ex-wife (played by Elisabeth Moss) is on the committee that fires him from his U.S. Soccer coaching job. In reality, Rongen pointed out, he and his wife were still married and she wasn’t working for the U.S. Soccer Federation. “Next Goal Wins” later depicts Rongen initially ostracizing Jaiyah Saelua, a player who identifies as fa’afafine — a 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 clarified with a shrug. “I’m Dutch — I’m liberal.” To round out the character’s down-and-out image, the movie gives the fictional Rongen a drinking problem and hot temper that the real, exceedingly amiable Rongen didn’t possess.
“I become initially the villain a little bit, and [Waititi] told me that he would do that,” Rongen said. “But I still think it’s genius.”
To Waititi, the decision to imbue Rongen’s character with more of a redemption arc was a simple one.
“Who wants to watch a movie where everyone’s nice and there’s no conflict?” Waititi said. “You’ve got to have those villain characters. If ‘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 that?”
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 movies, “plays a very good Thomas Rongen, with a twinkle in his eye”— even if the two still haven’t met. He also recognized the cathartic journey of grief and healing his character goes through while immersed in American Samoa’s spirituality, and pointed to various seemingly outlandish moments in the film that were, in fact, derived from real life.
The sentiment was echoed by the center back Saelua, who is portrayed by the fa’afafine actor Kaimana. Saelua praised the way in which “Next Goal Wins” evokes the Polynesian way of life and captures the complexities and struggles of being a fa’afafine athlete.
“The essence of the documentary was carried over into the movie — the sense of culture and community and the love of the game that we have here,” Saelua said. Discussing her own portrayal on-screen, she added: “Kaimana’s experiences in regards to her transgender identity and all of her experiences in regards to her fa’afafine identity, all of those experiences are so accurate to my own — not in the timeline that the film is set in, but throughout my life.”
In amplifying the role of Saelua, who eventually becomes a surrogate daughter figure to Fassbender’s Rongen, the movie grapples with a tragedy Rongen was still confronting during the events of the film: the 2004 death of his stepdaughter, Nicole Megaloudis, in a car crash when she was a freshman soccer player at Virginia Commonwealth University. Just as Rongen did in 2011, the character poignantly sports a VCU cap during the movie’s climactic World Cup qualifier between American Samoa and Tonga.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about death,” Rongen said while wearing another VCU hat during the interview. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about burying their child. And [Waititi] caught me a little bit by surprise, the way he did it, actually.”
As American Samoa prepares to kick off its qualifying campaign 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 the first qualifier less than a year away, he said he’ll decide in the coming months if he’ll return for a second go-round in the South Pacific.
“There’s limited funds, so they’re still up against it,” Rongen said. “But I wouldn’t go there to necessarily win — I would go there to experience it.”
What does Waititi make of perhaps getting fodder for a sequel?
“It’s a fantastic idea — he should definitely do it,” the filmmaker said. “They love him over there, and he loves them.”