After enduring a 31–0 loss to Australia in 2001, the American Samoan football team was given the humiliating title: “the worst football team on the planet”, which it has lived with ever since. Despite remaining at the bottom of FIFA’s world rankings, and scoring on only two occasions in 17 years, the team has played on. Next Goal Wins is a new documentary showing at the Sydney Film Festival. It follows the American Samoan football team’s attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which from the outset seems an impossible dream.

The team is made up of colourful and passionate players, each with a story. You might imagine team members to be suspicious of British directors Mike Brett and Steven Jamison, considering the fun that has been poked at them in the past. But, says Brett, “Having the cameras around, with the sense that we believed these guys were going to do something, gave them some of the self-belief they needed to deliver an amazing performance at the end of the movie.”

Goalkeeper Nicky Salapu is obviously wounded by the years of criticism he has copped. Before each game, vibrant defender Jaiyah Saelua, who also identifies as a member of Samoa’s fa’afafine community (a recognised third gender that blends aspects of masculinity and femininity), carefully applies her makeup and styles her hair. Her gentle yet steely determination, and the warm encouragement of the other players, is the glue that keeps the team’s shaky moral together.

Add to the mix the tough, Dutch coach, Thomas Rongen, who has only one month to get the team up to scratch. “We were apprehensive about Thomas – we thought he might try to stop us filming, or feel it was distracting for the players,” says Brett. “But he quickly understood we had kind of become part of the team.”

This is the first feature-length film by Brett and Jamison, who previously made sports commercials for brands such as Nike and Adidas. Next Goal Wins is shot beautifully and demonstrates the skills the two directors have obviously developed over years of putting together slick advertisements. Their expertise, combined with the raw beauty of the tiny island of Samoa, creates a profound sense of the landscape.

Despite a limited budget and even smaller crew, Jamison and Brett were determined to use deluxe camera equipment. Onlookers thought they were out of their minds. “We didn’t just want to make a small documentary, we were very ambitious in terms of scale,” says Brett. Shipping the camera gear preferred by Peter Jackson and David Fincher to the island was a risk, but one that paid off. Looking back, the directors believe if they had have taken a larger crew, they wouldn’t have embedded themselves as successfully in Samoan culture and the players’ daily lives.

Recently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, Next Goal Wins is a film about football that isn’t really about football. Jamison says, “We wanted to tell a story about a team losing with dignity who could teach the world, not something about winning, but something about losing.”

Next Goal Wins will be screening at the Sydney Film festival