Why foot­ball films al­ways miss the mark

As the World Cup is prov­ing, foot­ball is a spec­tac­u­larly dra­matic game. So why are most films on the sub­ject aw­ful, asks PAUL WHITINGTON

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

De­spite all the doom and gloom that pre­ceded it, the 2018 World Cup has been very well or­gan­ised and hugely en­ter­tain­ing at times. Al­ready we’ve had the rise of Eng­land, Ron­aldo’s hero­ics, the tra­vails of pre-tour­na­ment favourites like Ar­gentina and Ger­many, lots of VAR-re­lated out­rage, and one of the games of the cen­tury be­tween Ibe­rian ri­vals Spain and Por­tu­gal. No doubt there are more thrilling en­coun­ters and con­tro­ver­sies to come.

Odd, then, that a sport as in­her­ently dra­matic as foot­ball has failed to in­spire a sin­gle gen­uinely out­stand­ing movie. The prob­lem may be this: ei­ther you hire real foot­ballers and end up with con­vinc­ing game se­quences and ter­ri­ble act­ing, or you use proper ac­tors who give you good drama and em­bar­rass­ing foot­ball.

Film-mak­ers of­ten go for a fudged com­pro­mise, and while you could ar­gue that this prob­lem is true for all sports pic­tures, foot­ball has produced noth­ing to ri­val the ex­cel­lence of, say, Rocky, Rag­ing Bull, Se­abis­cuit, The Pride of the Yan­kees or Money­ball .In fact, even the sup­pos­edly good soc­cer movies have a hint of the sham­bolic about them, and the best foot­ball film I’ve ever seen is not a drama at all, but a doc­u­men­tary (see panel on next page).

We’ll dis­cuss the best here, but also the worst, and sadly there’s some­times not much dif­fer­ence.

A shame­less early at­tempt to cap­i­talise on the sport’s huge pop­u­lar­ity in 1930s Bri­tain, The Arse­nal Sta­dium Mystery (1939) was a mildly en­ter­tain­ing crime ca­per set in High­bury, the north Lon­don club’s now de­mol­ished spir­i­tual home. The Gun­ners are play­ing a friendly with a fic­tional club called Tro­jans when one of the vis­it­ing play­ers keels over at half time. He’s been poi­soned by one of the sliced or­anges, and sus­pi­cions point to an em­bit­tered mis­tress — those foot­ballers were al­ways a classy bunch.

It’s a slight but en­ter­tain­ing pe­riod piece, com­plete with bryl­creemed hair and an­kle-length shorts, and while Arse­nal Sta­dium Mystery might be a bit hokey, it’s Cit­i­zen Kane com­pared with some of the dross to come.

Strik­ing a more som­bre note, Zoltán Fábri’s 1952 film Two Half Times in Hell was loosely based on a real wartime in­ci­dent in which Ger­man sol­diers chal­lenged their Ukrainian prison­ers to a high-stakes game of footie. High stakes in­deed, ac­cord­ing to this film, be­cause the hastily as­sem­bled team of Hun­gar­ian forced labour­ers are warned that they’ll all be shot if they have the temer­ity to win.

Two Half Times in Hell was tol­er­a­ble, mainly be­cause Fábri used real ac­tors, but when John Hus­ton re­made it in 1981 as Es­cape to Vic­tory, stars like Michael Caine and Sylvester Stal­lone shared the stage with such footie greats (and dread­ful ac­tors) as Pelé, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles and Ip­swich leg­end John Wark. The re­sult was watchable, cer­tainly, but pretty silly at times, and Stal­lone’s goal­keep­ing hero­ics at the end stretched credulity be­yond break­ing point. Bit short for a keeper, I would have thought.

Is Gregory’s Girl a foot­ball movie? It will do for our pur­poses, and though Bill Forsyth’s com­ing-of-age rom­com might show its age a lit­tle, its en­dear­ing charm has stood the test of time. John Gordon Sin­clair played the hero, the hap­less cen­tre for­ward on his un­der­per­form­ing school team whose pride is hurt when he’s re­placed by a girl. But pretty soon Gregory doesn’t care, as he’s fallen head over heels in love with Dorothy (Dee Hep­burn).

Gregory’s Girl may well have in­flu­enced the mak­ers of Bend It Like Beck­ham, a mod­estly en­ter­tain­ing 2002 film star­ring Par­min­der Na­gra is Jess, a foot­ball-lov­ing Sikh teenager whose con­ser­va­tive par­ents won’t al­low her to play be­cause she’s a girl. She de­fies them of course, and Bend it Like Beck­ham was a big suc­cess and gave one Keira Knight­ley her big break.

The Mir­a­cle of Bern (2003) mov­ingly caught per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in Ger­many’s rich foot­balling his­tory — their un­ex­pected vic­tory at the 1954 World Cup. The coun­try was left dec­i­mated and di­vided by Nazi

Prob­a­bly the worst foot­ball film of them all was based on a book by Jackie Collins and was pos­si­bly in­spired by the ex­ploits of Ge­orge Best

rule and Hitler’s de­feat, but a turn­ing point came dur­ing the World Cup in Switzer­land, when West Ger­many over­came a dodgy pas­sage through the group stages to de­feat tour­na­ment favourites Hun­gary in the fi­nal. As a foot­balling na­tion, they never looked back.

The Foot­ball Fac­tory is not about foot­ball per se, but fight­ing, a much more cin­e­matic pas­time. In the 1980s, Chelsea and Mill­wall earned the du­bi­ous hon­our of boast­ing Eng­land’s most no­to­ri­ous hooli­gans, and Danny Dyer starred as a mem­ber of a Chelsea ‘firm’ whose sins are about to catch up with him. The film cul­mi­nated in a pitch bat­tle be­tween Chelsea and Mill­wall gangs. Ed­i­fy­ing stuff.

Goal! (2005) was ac­tu­ally about foot­ball, and threw ev­ery cliché known to man into the pot while telling the tale of San­ti­ago (Kuno Becker), a Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can gar­dener whose silky skills are spot­ted by a pass­ing English­man (Stephen Dil­lane) who gets the boy a trial at New­cas­tle United. Cue a Roy of the Rovers-style as­cent to star­dom.

If Goal! was silly (it re­ally was), Ken Loach’s Look­ing for Eric was al­to­gether more soul­ful, and starred Steve Evets as a pot-smok­ing post­man and Manch­ester United fa­natic who starts re­ceiv­ing hal­lu­cino­genic vis­its from his hero Eric Can­tona. It was not without a cer­tain charm, but Loach spe­cialises in sink mis­ery: whim­si­cal com­edy is not his nat­u­ral habi­tat.

Per­haps the most com­pe­tent and re­al­is­tic foot­ball drama of re­cent times is The Damned United , Tom Hooper’s well-told 2009 ac­count of Brian Clough’s dis­as­trous ten­ure at Leeds United in the mid-1970s. Cloughie, of course, would go on to achieve great things with Not­ting­ham For­est, but when he came to Leeds in the au­tumn of 1974, he found a club used to suc­cess and pep­pered with dif­fi­cult and opin­ion­ated play­ers who weren’t about to make life easy for him.

Michael Sheen was su­perb as Clough, and Tom Hooper man­aged to make a film that in­cluded a co­her­ent plot as well as foot­ball — and there were no em­bar­rass­ing turns from ac­tual play­ers ei­ther. Oddly, though, and de­spite be­ing al­most uni­ver­sally ac­claimed by the crit­ics, The Damned

United flopped at the box of­fice. Do foot­ball movies only do well if they’re ter­ri­ble? If so, the films be­low ought to have been world-beat­ers.

Sean Bean has been a pas­sion­ate Sh­effield United fan since he was a boy, and has a tat­too on his shoul­der which reads ‘100% Blade’. In When Sat­ur­day Comes

(1996), he ful­filled his dreams by vir­tu­ally play­ing for them: he was Jimmy, a York­shire fac­tory worker who’s scouted by The Blades and ends up win­ning the league and

get­ting the girl. It was very silly. So was The Match (1999), a folksy tale about two ri­val Scot­tish vil­lage pubs who’ve held a bad-tem­pered an­nual foot­ball game for the last 100 years. The loser of the next one will have to close their pub, and Max Beesley plays a would-be man­ager try­ing to engi­neer an un­likely win. Richard E Grant was the pan­tomime vil­lain, and there were cameos from Alan Shearer, Andy Gray and for­mer glam­our model Sam Fox. Ghastly busi­ness.

Yesterday’s Hero, though, may just be the worst foot­ball movie of them all. Based on a book by Jackie Collins (you heard me), and quite pos­si­bly in­spired by the ex­ploits of one Ge­orge Best, it starred a young and swarthy Ian McShane as ‘Rod Turner’, a for­mer first di­vi­sion star whose ca­reer was blighted by al­co­holism and now plies his trade in the mi­nor leagues.

A rock star (Adam Faith) who owns a big team wants Rod to sign for them, but will he able to clean up his act­in­time­forthe­cup­fi­nal,and­win the heart of the film’s love in­ter­est, Cloudy Martin? Take a wild guess.

High stakes: Es­cape to Vic­tory saw Michael Caine and Sylvester Stal­lone share the screen with Pelé, Ossie Ardiles and Bobby Moore

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