Yes. The movie, which is directed by Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit), was inspired by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison's 2014 British documentary of the same name. However, as we'll detail in the following questions, plenty of fiction has been injected into the story.
No. We're told in the movie, Rongen "has been fired from his last three jobs because he can't control himself." However, the Next Goal Wins true story reveals that the film attributing Rongen being fired to routine violent outbursts and a difficult personality is fiction. In real life, the United States Soccer Federation fired Rongen in May 2011 from his position as coach of the United States Under-20 team for failing to guide the team into the World Cup. It ended the team's streak of qualifying for the tournament consistently since 1995. In an interview with Rongen, The Washington Post notes that he did not have a "hot temper" and is "exceedingly amiable" in real life.
Yes. In February 2004, Rongen's 19-year-old stepdaughter, Nicole Megaloudis, passed away in a car accident. Nicole was a soccer player for Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where she was a freshman. According to The Washington Post, the Virginia State Police said that the accident happened while Nicole was driving eastbound on Interstate 64, not far from Oilville, Virginia. Her 1995 Volkswagen Jetta veered off the right side of the road. As she tried to gain control of the vehicle, she crossed back over the road and went off the left side of the interstate into the median, where the car hit a tree. Actress Kaitlyn Dever (Unbelievable) portrays Nicole in the movie. The film changes the timeline of the accident, pushing it up to 2009, closer to when Thomas Rongen coached the American Samoa soccer team.
Michael Fassbender, who plays Coach Rongen, can be seen wearing Nicole's VCU hat in the film. The real Rongen wears his stepdaughter Nicole's hat in the documentary when he coaches American Samoa to their second-ever win over Tonga. Following Nicole's passing, the Rongen family started a scholarship foundation in Nicole's name, The Nicole Megaloudis Foundation, which provides scholarships to financially challenged students who've demonstrated leadership qualities.
No. In the Next Goal Wins movie, Coach Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is depicted as being estranged from Gail (Elisabeth Moss), who is dating the obnoxious U.S. Soccer Federation President, Alex Magnussen (Will Arnett). Early in the film, Gail is part of the committee that fires Thomas from his recent coaching job. This is all fiction. Thomas and his wife were not divorced or estranged, nor did she work for the U.S. Soccer Federation. Also, as you might have deduced from his absence in the cast vs. real people section at the top, Will Arnett's character, Federation president Alex Magnussen, is fictional as well. There is no record of a president with that name.
In interviews, Thomas has indicated that the real Gail, who he is still married to, had supported and accompanied him to American Samoa and even befriended the players, including the transgender player, Jaiyah Saelua. Gail and Jaiyah are still friends to this day.
No. Just prior to the movie's September 2023 debut screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, director and co-writer Taika Waititi admitted to changing the story for the screen. "I had to twist the truth," he confessed to the audience. "Otherwise, watch the documentary."
The real-life Jaiyah Saelua, who is portrayed by Kaimana in the film, told the crowd that she was "really satisfied with Kaimana's performance," but that "it was hard for me to separate the documentary from Taika's hybrid version," adding, "We understand he will do as he pleases."
"Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!" Waititi replied.
In the movie, Waititi himself acts as the film's narrator, playing a fictional preacher who brings a forecast of hope to the islanders. He introduces the audience to the story by calling it a "whoa" story, as in, "Whoa, I can't believe that pretty much actually really happened, with a couple of embellishments along the way!" he says, not hiding the fact that the film doesn't hold back in invoking poetic license to amplify the drama and the humor.
Yes. While there are a number of embellishments in the movie, a Next Goal Wins fact-check confirms that the depiction of a trans woman on the team is mostly accurate. Portrayed by Kaimana, the character Jaiyah Saelua is based directly on a real-life player of the same name. In fact, the real Jaiyah Saelua has supported the making of the movie and appeared with director Taika Waititi at the movie's premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival in September.
No. The movie adds a significant element of fiction in the way Coach Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is initially unaccepting of Jaiyah's identity and then gradually becomes more accepting throughout the film as the two get to know each other. This contradicts the real-life Coach Rongen, who was entirely tolerant and accepting of Jaiyah from the very beginning, which is evident in both the documentary and interviews with Rongen. "I absolutely accepted Jaiyah from day one," he told The Washington Post of the movie's inaccurate depiction.
For example, Coach Rongen never called Jaiyah by an unpreferred name. In fact, in real life, Rongen took it upon himself to immediately ask Jaiyah whether he should use Johnny or Jaiyah, something that impressed the other players. It might make sense to include this fictional character arc for Rongen in the movie, but it's important to note that it does not mirror the Next Goal Wins true story or the real Coach Rongen, especially since the movie has faced some controversy for depicting Rongen in what some have deemed to be a "transphobic" manner, even though the character becomes fully accepting of Jaiyah as the film progresses.
Yes. Despite being an atheist himself, Rongen told TCPalm that he attended church with his players "to show that I cared," adding that it was "huge" in terms of what it meant to the players. He said that going to church also helped him to get in touch with his spiritual side and begin to heal.
To further bring the team together, Rongen took them to Matafeo Peak, the site where American Samoa fighters successfully thwarted invading Tonga forces.
"I'd seen that they couldn't play 90 minutes," says Rongen, "so they weren't very fit. I knew in three weeks I could help there. More so, the mental side, and how do I turn a losing team into a winning team? And the day of the game against Tonga, our first qualifying game to go to Brazil, I looked in their faces when I announced the starting eleven." Rongen says that he gave them a pretty good "rah-rah speech" to encourage them. "I said to my wife actually, 'I think they believe they can win.' So that was an incredible journey of doing a lot of different teambuilding exercises to get to that point where they firmly believed [they could win]. ... I worked on the mental side more than anything else." -CBS Sports Golazo
The movie was not actually shot in American Samoa. Instead, it was filmed in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Despite only coaching American Samoa in 2011 (his contract expired at the end of the FIFA qualifying tournament), Rongen's impact was substantial and resulted in the team's second-ever win, a November 2011 victory against Tonga that is chronicled in the 2014 documentary Next Goal Wins. The documentary is what inspired Taika Waititi to make the movie.