You Really Couldn't Script it: Football on Film

Why has cinema found football to be such a tricky customer? Football scenes in film and television are traditionally very awkward affairs, with the "defenders" tip-toeing nervously around the "attackers" as they advance, the goal finally coming via the sort of impractical flying volley you just never see on a real pitch. It's clearly very difficult to let someone score a script-dictated goal while pretending to try to stop them but, at the same time, trying not to look like you're pretending to try to stop them. Perhaps they teach it at RADA, who knows?

Furthermore, filmmakers have the challenge of adding a fictional big-screen gloss to what is already an overwhelmingly camera-friendly and consistently dramatic spectacle in its own right. Real-life football already has its own "script" which often features players scoring against their old clubs, but which is occasionally torn up by giantkilling cup minnows who have refused to read it. With that in mind, some of the best football films ever made are narratives that require no fictional embellishment at all. FIFA's official World Cup films, notably Goal! (1966) and Hero (1986), have greater pathos and plot twists than anything created by scriptwriters. Away from the pitch, the minefield of clichés is such that anything other than caricature is hard to achieve - the players all drive flash cars, the managers are all dour disciplinarians and the fans are long-suffering sadcases with posters all over their walls.

But football's universal popularity (and therefore potential box-office appeal) is too great not be exploited. The genre of the football film has had its sublime highs and ridiculous lows, but has any movie ever quite managed to nail down the people's game? Here are some notable attempts:

Escape to Victory (1981)
The improbability of its context notwithstanding, the climax of John Huston's classic arguably features the most accurately-depicted passages of play in the history of cinematic football. Michael Caine passes quite well for a veteran footballer alongside Bobby Moore, Mike Summerbee, Russell Osman and a cruelly dubbed-over John Wark, while Ossie Ardiles and Pelé (as the confusingly-cast Trinidadian striker Luis Fernandez) add some exoticism to the forward line of the Allied POWs.

Even Sylvester Stallone's erratic goalkeeping in the face of the dead-eyed German attack can't spoil a pulsating, propaganda-destroying 4-4 draw in Paris, secured thanks to a last-minute bicycle kick from a wounded Fernandez. There's still time for the Germans to miss a penalty (yes, yes) and, as the Wehrmacht's top brass sit humiliated in the stands, Caine's men make a sneaky escape amid a gleeful pitch invasion. Victoire! Victoire!

Hotshot (1987)
Fiery young soccer player Jimmy Kristidis, left out in the cold by the New York Rockers, seeks out the retired and disillusioned Brazilian star Santos (played by Pelé, clearly in high demand in the 1980s) to coach him back into the big time. He initially refuses but, after some sub-Karate Kid persuasion, performs a rather convenient U-turn. The climax is predictable - Jimmy's disapproving family are inevitably won round - but the astroturf action is quite charmingly ridiculous

Two years after the demise of the North American Soccer League, and a year away from the United States winning the right to host the 1994 World Cup, it's tempting to curse the unfortunate timing of Hotshot's release, but it really is just bloody awful.

Goal! trilogy (2005-2009)
A FIFA-endorsed, rags-to-riches narrative, wrapped in a chaotic mess of product placement and star-studded cameo appearances - in many ways, the Goal! trilogy is an inadvertently astute reflection of modern football. In the first installment, Goal! The Dream BeginsSantiago Munez (Kuno Becker) defies his father - and, it seems, UK work permit criteria - to seek his fortune with Newcastle United. There are some setbacks (jealous teammates, tabloid misrepresentation) but Santiago finally makes his dad proud and his free-kick against Liverpool at St James' Park, ably stunt-doubled by Laurent Robert, takes Newcastle into the Champions League. 

In Goal II: Living the Dream, Santiago earns a transfer to Real Madrid, where his success makes him arrogant and selfish. Madrid reach the Champions League final, though, where Santiago climbs off the bench to help secure a 3-2 win over Arsenal (whose trophy drought even extends to this fictional universe). For all the galacticos on show, it's rather odd to hear Tony Gale describing the action. 

The straight-to-DVD Goal III: Taking on the World makes that step up to international level at the World Cup, but must make do without the big names of the first two films. The trilogy's decline is rubber-stamped with a brief, foul-mouthed appearance by Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley. If modern football does eventually succeed in eating itself, Goal III was the warning we failed to heed.

When Saturday Comes (1996)
Celebrity Sheffield United fan Sean Bean is cast into his dream role as Jimmy Muir, a jack-the-lad Sunday league goal machine who loves his mum (but hates his abusive, alcoholic dad) and bags a trial with the Blades. United legend Tony Currie isn't sure about him, the club's captain (played, oddly, by ex-Sheffield Wednesday stalwart Mel Sterland) certainly doesn't rate him, but his girlfriend still believes.

Naturally, Jimmy lets everybody down by going out on the booze and sleeping with a stripper, before redemption arrives in the form of a match-winning penalty. On his debut. In an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United. The match takes place at the distinctly non-neutral Bramall Lane, illustrating the sort of factual dilemmas that football films can pose for their producers. 

Fever Pitch (1997)
Nick Hornby's adapted screenplay from his original novel is, at the very least, one of the most underrated British romcoms of the 1990s and 2000s. It's also a faithful account of the ultimately futile absorption that is football fandom, from the trivial (Subbuteo squabbles, lucky Arsenal boxer shorts) to the serious (the Hillsborough disaster).

Arsenal's 1988/89 title-race exploits provide the undulating backdrop to the personal struggles of teacher Paul Ashworth, portrayed more than passably by Colin Firth. The anachronistic female characters, including Paul's girlfriend Sarah (Ruth Gemmell), are presented as eye-rolling football-haters, quipping wearily about "Wolves United" or "who Arsenal's best goalhanger is". Of course, by the end, Sarah finds herself inextricably drawn to TV sports reports on the match-fitness of David Rocastle.

"Oh, shut up Pleat!" spits best mate Steve (Mark Strong), as the ITV co-commentator tries to cushion the blow of Arsenal's seemingly-imminent heroic failure in the championship decider against Liverpool. By this stage, the script writes itself. At Anfield, Steve McMahon holds up a single finger to his teammates to let them know they're a minute away from the league title. Seconds later, Lee Dixon's hopeful long ball is flicked on by Alan Smith to Michael Thomas (already widely-denounced as "rubbish" after missing an earlier chance) who charges through the Liverpool defence to complete the unlikely tale:

A Shot at Glory (2000)
Casting directors have a unique quandary for football-based films. Should they plump for an actor who can play a bit or a professional footballer who isn't made of wood? 

A Shot at Glory saw the unlikely big-screen partnership of European Golden Boot winner Ally McCoist (then winding down his real-life playing career at Kilmarnock) and Academy Award winner Robert Duvall. McCoist had been a team captain on A Question of Sport for several years by this point, and was therefore fully banter-hardened for the cameras. Duvall's role as Kilnockie manager Gordon McLeod, meanwhile, required him to scrape together a Scottish accent using bits of old shortbread and bagpipes.

Kilnockie embark on a heroic cup run - despite the meddling of American owner Michael Keaton, who wants them to relocate to Dublin - where they meet Rangers in the final. I won't spoil the ending.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006)
In their intimate study of the modern game's most graceful exponent, filmmakers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno combined the narrow focus of Sky Sport's short-lived Player Cam gimmick and the art-installation pointlessness of Empire (1964), Andy Warhol's eight-hour unbroken shot of the Empire State Building. The Guardian's Philip French described it as "hypnotic, self-indulgent and lacking in context, rather like doting parents at a nativity play concentrating on their daughter's Mary or their son's Joseph to the exclusion of the other performers and the Gospel message."

It wasn't the first attempt at this, though. Hellmuth Costard's 1970 film Fussball wie noch nie (Football as never before) followed the equally mercurial George Best around the Old Trafford pitch in a match against Coventry City. Best duly indulges the voyeurism with a goal, rounding the Coventry goalkeeper so casually that you assume the referee's whistle had already blown for an offside. 

Back at the 
Bernabeu, Zidane glides and trudges around, sporting that mildly irritated grimace, for almost 90 minutes. Then, he's sent off in the dying minutes after a scuffle with a Villarreal player (the only time Zidane seems to break sweat) and it's a conveniently prescient moment. Weeks after this film had premiered at Cannes, Zizou once again summoned his inner street kid and brought his career to an ignominious end with that headbutt on the arch-villain Marco Materazzi. 

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)
One of the first films to base itself around the game of football. George Allison's Arsenal stage a friendly match against The Trojans (a fictional version of the famous touring amateurs Corinthian FC). The Trojans' star player, John Doyce, is established as having an affair with the fiancée of a teammate (imagine that these days, eh? Oh.) but his sudden death on the pitch, apparently having been poisoned, sparks a police investigation led by the eccentric Inspector Slade.

Another sinister plot to assassinate a player on the pitch featured in Danish political thriller Skytten (1977), in which the European Footballer of the Year, Allan Simonsen, quite literally goes down like he's been shot by a sniper. In their book Who Invented the Stepover?, Paul Simpson and Uli Hesse claim that Simonsen agreed to quickly stage his own murder for this scene during a World Cup qualifying defeat against Poland in Copenhagen. A forensic comparison of the YouTube evidence can't quite prove this sensational claim either way but you really, really want it to be true.

Other films have tackled rather more niche aspects of football. Hooliganism's box-office appeal is easy to understand, which led in the mid-2000s to the swaggering pair of The Football Factory (Danny Dyer, Chelsea v Millwall, proper naughty) and Green Street (Elijah Wood, West 'Am, woeful cockney accents) but the altogether more sinister I.D. (1995) eclipses both. 

A curious turn-of-the-millennium American obsession with football-playing dogs led to three such films in the space of five years, but audiences were less enthused - they boast an average rating of 3.5 out of 10 on IMDB. The latest foray into the genre-bending world of the football film is Goal of the Dead (2014), the forthcoming French production that's, yes indeed, a football zombie film. 

The wait goes on for football's definitive cinematic moment.


Anonymous said...

What about the classic Shaolin Soccer

Charles said...

I second Shaolin Soccer! Actually a good and very watchable film!

Clubtray Football said...

Football Clichés: Even the best football movies struggle to capture the sport's drama on film. The worst (and there are many) are truly abysmal.