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Why aren't there any decent football films?: From Sly Stallone saving Nazi penalties to Frodo Baggins running with hooligans, the beautiful game comes off badly. (Duleep Allirajah, 6/19/09, spiked)
Why are there so few good football films? I can understand why Hollywood has given football the swerve. Soccer simply isn’t a box-office draw in the US. But you’d expect better from British filmmakers. It’s a national obsession on this side of the pond. Yet our filmmakers have conspicuously failed to do justice to the game.

Take feelgood sports films for example. I’ve yet to see a decent, rags-to-riches, Roy of the Rovers feelgood football movie. All previous attempts to copy the well-worn American rise-fall-and-redemption sports movie template have failed. [...]

The only film to explore the non-hooligan dimension of football fandom was Fever Pitch, the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s celebrated book. Hornby’s confessional account of his own obsession with Arsenal is transformed by director David Evans into a typically British romantic comedy. The film has its moments, but it simply can’t recapture some of the best passages of the book, such as Hornby’s extended meditation on why no human pleasure – sex, childbirth, passing exams – could possibly compare to Arsenal winning the Championship in 1989 with virtually the last kick of the season. Bend it Like Beckham and Gregory’s Girl are two other football-related rom coms worth mentioning. Bend it Like Beckham is far too worthy for its own good as far as I’m concerned. Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl is, by contrast, a much better film, but it’s far more about teenage love than football. And while we’re on the subject of comedies, Mike Bassett Football Manager is passable, but for sheer toe-curling comedy of embarrassment you’re better off watching the original Graham Taylor documentary, An Impossible Job.

I haven’t mentioned Escape to Victory, of course. It’s not strictly speaking a British film, directed as it was by John Huston and starring Sylvester Stallone. However it’s one of the few films about football that is worth watching. I’m choosing my words carefully here. It’s not a great film. It’s certainly no Raging Bull. In fact, there are so many things wrong with it I haven’t got time to list them all. But somehow it holds a special place in the hearts of many British football fans. Why? Well, despite the anachronisms, the preposterous plot, and the hammy acting, the film possesses that winning combination of plucky Brits, football, Nazis and Michael Caine that we simply can’t resist.

I watched Escape to Victory again last Sunday and three things struck me. Firstly, Russell Osman’s ‘but we can win this’ rallying cry must go down as the most iconic half-time pep talk in football history. Simply inspiring. Secondly, the film serves as a timely reminder that pitch invasions are not necessarily a bad thing. If it assists Allied POWs escape from the Nazis then a pitch invasion is clearly A Good Thing. Finally, the film reminds us that there was a time, admittedly before many of us were born, when the Germans didn’t always score from the penalty spot. All young British goalkeepers should be shown Colonel Hatch’s last-minute penalty save to debunk the pernicious myth that Germans are invincible at spot kicks.

As I said Escape to Victory isn’t a great film. I’d be lying if I said it was a good film. But it’s still one of the best films about football ever. And that’s a sad indictment of the film industry’s failure to translate the world’s greatest game on to the silver screen.

All you really need to know about the woeful history of soccer on film is that the dreadful Victory is widely considered the best of the genre, the American version of Fever Pitch is vastly superior to the soccer version, and only the Iranians made a soccer flick that's actually worth watching.

In Jafar Panahi's Offside a young girl is hellbent on sneaking into Azadi Stadium for the 2006 World Cup qualifier between the Iranian national team and Bahrain, from which women are barred. Despite the assistance she receives from sympathetic male fans, she's caught and penned up with other equally unfortunate girls. They're watched over by guards who either recognize the absurdity of the gender segregation or genuinely believe it morally dangerous for them to be exposed to the boorish behavior of a crowd of men. When they're taken from the stadium in a bus for processing by the police, even the most conservative country boy guard fiddles with the radio antenna until they can get adequate reception to listen to the end of the game. The girls aren't given names and it's hard to figure out what makes them so passionate in their desire to attend the game in person, until the lead reveals her own motivation in the most affecting scene in the film.

Some will object that the filmmaker isn't very judgmental about the males-only policy. You can imagine the self-righteous indignation with which a Western director would have approached the topic. Perhaps more revealing is that the movie was shot on location during the events, though Mr. Panahi apparently misled authorities about the sort of film he was making. Thus is illustrated the vital difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. The characters demonstrate a corresponding conviction that they can talk the authorities and their minions out of most of the trouble they get in for violations of rules that no one is terribly eager to enforce.

Soccer is only the backdrop for the tale here and we see the action only from long distance, though one guard narrates what's going on to the girls and then they do get to hear the radio broadcast. But it is certainly fair to call it a soccer film.

Another indicator of the trouble with soccer films is that David Anspaugh, who made terrific sports movies in Hoosiers and Rudy, turned out a very pedestrian one about the greatest victory in US soccer history in The Game of their Lives. In 1950, a USA team made up of the sons of immigrants in St. Louis, a Haitian dish washer, and some East Coast boys, went to Brazil and defeated the mighty English, 1-0. The book about the event, by Geoffrey Douglas, is terrific. But it focuses on the social milieu, Dago Hill (home to Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola as well), from which five of the 11 starters, including goalie Frank Borghi, arose, and on the curious character, the Haitian Joe Gaetjens, who went from scoring the US goal in this game to being murdered by the Duvalier regime in his native land, apparently keeping the same open and trusting manner the whole way.

The film takes a more straightforward sporting glory approach and, predictably, the more attention given the game of soccer itself the less interesting the movie. Especially odd given the source material is that none of the players' personalities are developed very well. If you didn't know it was a true story it would all seem overly cliched. And one of the unfortunate narrative devices employed is to have Patrick Stewart play an elderly version of the only American reporter who attended the game, Dent McSkimming from St. Louis. He's required to explain the significance of the game at considerable length as well as to evangelize for the sport's future. It's quite contrived and intrusive, though undoubtedly necessary for an American audience that could generally care less about soccer. The final victory is exciting enough, but the rest of the movie never rises above the humdrum.

Actually, the greatest soccer movie ever made is probably the documentary, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. It relates the story of how Steve Ross and Warner Communications built the bedraggled New York franchise of the North American Soccer League into a global brand and, briefly, had soccer on the verge of major sport status in America, by recruiting first Pele and then Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Steve Hunt, Dennis Tueart and other internationals to play with club team scrubs. The combination of backing from a major media mogul, the phenomenon that was Pele, playing in Giants Stadium, and spending enough to make the team a powerhouse in a paupers' league, eventually got soccer on US sports pages and even on broadcast television, though only for a season.

It's interesting to hear the greatest stars of the game, Beckenbauer, Alberto, and Johann Cruyf, talk about the possibility that the NASL version of the game--which didn't allow for ties, playing an extra period and then a hockey-style shootout instead--was superior to the rest of the world's and to hear their genuine pride in having been part of the team and its accomplishments. The film argues, quite convincingly, that the Cosmos were forerunners of the Manchester United's and Real Madrid's of modern soccer.

But there lurked within the success a great evil, and he was Giorgio Chinaglia. The Welsh-Italian striker represented everything detestable about modern sports in general and soccer in particular. His only interest was in scoring goals and he not only believed that the entire offense should run through him but that he should run the entire club for his own benefit. As sycophantic to those above him as he was dismissive towards those below, he captivated Ross to the point that he was allowed to bring in a coach of his own choosing and ultimately to install his own dog's body, Peppe Pinton, to run the team. If Ross had run up huge dents they were nothing compared to what Chinaglia managed. And, arrogant to the end, the former player is only too happy to sit on camera and justify it all as nothing more than he deserved.

This internal destruction of the team was occurring as the league expanded far beyond its capacity to draw fans and field talent and as ABC television tried following a Monday Night Football format rather than utilizing the Match of the Day format that is so successful on British television. The former depends on the notion that any given game is a sufficient event that fans will tune in and that the game itself is interesting enough to fans that they'll stay tuned for even a pretty bad game. The latter involves a recognition that even in a soccer-mad country like England, all too many of the matches stink on paper and are even worse in the playing. MotD allows the broadcaster to show long highlights from the very best game and shorter highlights of the others. It goes without saying that if you couldn't get folks who love the game to watch them in their entirety you weren't going to get Americans to watch them.

Sadly, Steve Ross, who'd done his best to foster the game in America and had tried to get the World Cup to come here, died just before the 1994 Cup was played here. He was predeceased by the team and league. The film depicts the tumultuous ride he went on as a truly grand adventure, even it it did end in tragedy, brought down by his Iago.

One final football movie irony--while there are few or no good British football films, there's one episode of the series Cracker that employs the game to excellent effect. In To Be a Somebody, Robert Carlyle plays a Liverpool fan with a psychotic bent and Robbie Coltrane has to "crack" him. 15 years after it was first broadcast I still can't get his chant out of my head.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Sports (General)
Geoffrey Douglas Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Geoffrey Douglas (Hyperion Books)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: The Game of Their Lives
    -PROFILE: UML Writer Gets Kick out of Hollywood (UMass Lowell Press Room, 2005)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: World Cup Fever (Shay Zeller, June 13, 2006, NHPR: Front Porch)
    -ARTICLE: The Game of Their Lives' to Be Filmed in St. Louis (Bob Moore, 5/19/03,
    -ESSAY: US V. England: The Game of Their Lives (Miki Turner, 4/21/05, ESPN)
    -ESSAY: The Film of Our Lives?: The USA's famous win over England is soon to hit the cinemas (Sean O'Conor, Soccerphile)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lives (Bob Corbett,


    -INFO: The Game of Their Lives (2005) (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: David Anspaugh (IMDB)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Game of Their Lives (Metacritic)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Game of Their Lives (IMDB)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lives (Roger Ebert)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lves (Peter Hartlaub, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lives (Jeff Swindoll, Monsters & Critics)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lives (Wesley Morris, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lives (Kevin Crust, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lives (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lives (USA Today)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lives (desson Thomson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Game of Their Lives (Hollywood Jesus)

Book-related and General Links: