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
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