Soccer Goes to the Movies

Frank MacDonald takes takes a cue from the recent Academy Awards and takes a look at some of the best soccer movies filmmakers have produced.
Seen any good movies lately? Soccer films, to be specific.

Let’s be honest, nothing really comes to mind, does it? So far, there’s nothing out there quite at the level of Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, The Natural or Field of Dreams.

It really is a beautiful game, but often it’s misunderstood. There is plenty of good material out there; move over Hoosiers, let’s do Barnsley beats Liverpool. Yet the first great soccer feature remains only an idea still to be hatched.

Granted, I’m no qualified film critic, but my advice to anyone shooting a feature film regarding the world version of football: put your camera on the pitch and aim it back into the stands. All that grandeur on the grass is spontaneous and, apart from a set play, unscripted. You can’t choreograph it.

Along the sidelines, in the director’s box or up in the Kop, it’s a different tale. That’s where you can find a story which can be told and believed.

Short of the fantasy variety, where players score with magical shoes or ninja-style kicks, the best footy flicks are about the supporters.

Just my opinion, mind you. However, I offer as evidence my three favorites, and the next on my video must-watch list.
And the Awards Go To…

Although it’s been over 20 years, I can recall scenes from Those Glory Glory Days with more than a hint of a smile. The London teenage schoolgirls screeching “Danny, Danny!” and swooning when Danny Blanch flower worked his magic for the Spurs in the famous double season of 1961. Saw it at the Seven Gables, I believe, and unfortunately haven’t seen it anywhere since.

On a tip, I watched Green Street Hooligans last summer. Apparently this Elijah Wood has been in bigger films (something about Rings?), but he offers a great set of eyes to see the brutality and genesis of gang warfare in British soccer. Wished I would’ve seen this back in the Eighties, when thugs could still afford to wreak havoc on the terraces. Now they’re in the boardroom.

And then there’s the original Fever Pitch, the British version which was faithful to Nick Hornby’s first novel. Funny, funny stuff. Not to be confused with the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore baseball bomb.

Coming soon to a small screen near my sofa: The Cup. Seen it? It’s been around for awhile. Love the premise: two diehard fans break the silence of a monastery by bringing in a TV to watch the World Cup.
Well Documented

My feeling is that the reason the aforementioned films work, at least for me, is that they tell the story of our fascination with this game without putting the actors in a compromising position out on the playing field.

Face it, no one can bend it like Beckham.

Gracie? Good premise and the title character has skills. But let’s get real. She can’t slalom through six guys and score to the upper corner.

Sly Stallone, Michael Caine and John Huston’s directing still couldn’t convince a naïve patron such as myself in 1981 that a bunch of malnourished World War II POWs–including Sir Bobby Moore and Pelé –could beat a team of well-drilled Germans.

If it’s on-field action you crave for your plasma, forget features. Because the only way to properly convey the beauty of the Beautiful Game is to show–or tell–it like it is. Reality TV at it’s best.

And the winner for the best documentary regarding soccer goes to the History of Soccer – The Beautiful Game, a 914-minute tome produced by the BBC and narrated by Terence Stamp. (General Zod from Superman). Every continent, each era and level of the game is explored. You see the greats and the yet-to-be-greats in training. You see how sport and culture are interwoven, and you are able to see why this game has such an enormous pull on us all.

If you’re new to the game but keep hearing all this nonsense about the NASL and the Cosmos, a must-see DVD is Once in a Lifetime. There are some memorable anecdotes, such as Pelé seeing green smudges on his skin after his first practice and believing himself contaminated by some Randall’s Island goo (it was actually field paint).

Finally, while Michael Caine can’t hold a candle to Bobby Moore on the field, his cockney accent hits just the right note in accompanying Diego Maradona’s cunning and controversial role in the 1986 World Cup highlight, Hero.

Well, the orchestra has begun to play, so we must wrap it up.

I’d like to thank my wife for going to a few of these movies and the many others which turned out to be turkeys. My deepest, deepest regards to Joe Roth, for agreeing to read my treatment of how Delta Tau Delta won the 1981 UW intramural title. Oh, what’s that? He was joking?

Well, we gotta go. On your next visit to the video store, consider checking out some of these titles.

Have A Look

 Green Street Hooligans (2005) (7.4 IMDB rating) – Elijah Wood stars as a wrongfully expelled Harvard undergrad moves to London, where he is introduced to the violent underworld of football hooliganism.

Shaolin Soccer (2001) (7.3) – A young Shaolin follower reunites with his discouraged brothers to form a soccer team using their martial art skills to their advantage.

Bend It Like Beckham (2003) (7.1) – The daughter of orthodox Sikh rebels against her parents' traditionalism by running off to Germany with a football team. Stars Keira Knightley.

Those Glory Glory Days (1986) (7.1) – Girls growing up in 1960-61 London develop a passion for the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, the first British team in the 20th century to win the English league and FA Cup double. Twenty years later, one of the girls tracks down players for a documentary.

Goal! The Dream Begins (2006) (6.9) – Young Santiago harbors the dream of being a professional. However, living in the Barrios section of Los Angeles, he thinks it is only that--a dream. Until one day an extraordinary turn of events has him trying out for Newcastle.

Fever Pitch (1997) (6.5) – The original British version, true to Nick Hornby’s autobiographical novel. A romantic comedy about supporting Arsenal and starring Colin Firth.

Jimmy Grimble (2000) (6.5) – A shy Manchester schoolboy, with the help of some special boots, manages to gain confidence to succeed and leads his team towards the final of the local schools cup.

The Cup (1999) (6.5) – During the 1998 World Cup, two Tibetan refugees disturb a monastery to organize rental of a TV to watch the games.

A Shot at Glory (2000) (6.3) – Robert Duvall is the manager of a second tier Scottish team forced to bring on a marquee player to improve the fortunes and prevent it from being moved from the town where it’s existed for a century.

Mean Machine (2001) (6.2) – A soccer star jailed for assault leads a group of inmates in a match against prison guards

Escape to Victory or Victory (1981) (6.1) – As allied POWs prepare for a soccer game against the German National Team to be played in Nazi-occupied Paris, the French Resistance and British officers are making plans for the team's escape. Cast features Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Pelé.

Game of Their Lives (2005) (6.1) – Tale of the 1950 U.S. team which beat England in the World Cup.

Gracie (2007) (6.1) – Set in the Seventies, a teenager faces an uphill battle when she fights to give women the opportunity to play competitive soccer.

Goal II: Living the Dream (2007) (5.9) – After gaining experience with the football club Newcastle United, Santiago Munez gets a huge break when he's transferred to Real Madrid.