Sports

How a Dutch coach and a transgender defender turned things around for American Samoa's soccer team

Unlike the World Series, The World Cup is a truly global tournament.

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

It's a month-long contest, pitting the best soccer teams on Earth, all with their eyes on the title of world champion.

The next men's tournament, in Brazil, starts June 12th. But it was preceded by two years of gruelling qualifying rounds, involving hundreds of games and more than 200 nations.

Well, a new documentary film called "Next Goal Wins" features a team you won't see competing in Brazil. In fact, this team from American Samoa is considered among the worst ever.

The film doesn't hold back in cataloguing the team's record-setting losing streak. We're talking decades without ever winning or even tying a single World Cup qualifying match.

One particulalrly nightmarish memory: a game against Australia, which crushed American Samoa by a score of 31 to 0. 

But as one player who was there says in the film, it's not all about the score. "My boys ... they've got the heart. I know they don't really have the skills and everything. But they've got the guts," he said.

The team from this tiny US territory in the South Pacific needed all the heart and guts it could muster to turn things around. And that's what the film is really about.

The cameras follow the efforts of American Samoa to qualify for this summer's tournament in Brazil under the direction of veteran Dutch coach Thomas Rongen.

And the unexpected happens: the team wins a game! And then they tie another! Losing streak over!

Rongen recently told the BBC what's so special about his squad. 

"These are a bunch of amateurs who really love the game," Rongen said. "They don't get any money. They don't get £150,000 (about $253,050) like (English superstar) Wayne Rooney. They are inspired by the passion of playing the game. For 10 years this team didn't score a goal. A 4-0 defeat was a win. So for this team to turn it around with a fa'afafine is remarkable."

And that's the other incredible twist to this story. The America Samoa men's squad that Rongen coached includes star defender named Jaiyah Saelua who is also transgender.

"I'm a fa'afafine, it's the third gender specific to the Samoan culture," Saelua told the BBC. "It's very normal in American Samoa. They embrace us and treat as normal and the culture helps us to be accepted."

In fact, Jaiyah Saelua has been recognized by FIFA, soccer's global governing body, as the first transgender player ever to compete in a World Cup qualifier.

Unfortunately for American Samoa, their win and the tie were followed by a loss. So the US territory was eliminated once again. But at least they went out with a respectable 1-1-1 record.

The documentary "Next Goal Wins" is now showing at film festivals and special screenings around the US.