Movies. Movies are great aren’t they? A wise man once said; “Men like films where lots of people die very quickly and women like films where one person dies very slowly”. Failing this of course, sports films can often do the trick for men in lieu of a decent body count per minute ratio. Except that is, if they’re football films. Football films are almost all universally rubbish. If they’re actually about football.
American sports fans can get stuck in to a wide variety of over dramatic cheesy waffle. Their homegrown sports are ready made for it. Ostensibly, a lot of American sports are geared more towards entertainment than sport anyway. Cheerleaders, hot dogs, silly mascots. All things football has tried to appropriate with varying degrees of cringe worthy success, and all aimed at making it more of a “day out”. Even the multi point scoring “something must be happening at all times or else our bums’ll fall off” logistics are cater made for the all action brainless blockbuster treatment. In fact almost all sports are so inherently dramatic and possessive of rich narratives that it’d be hard to find one you couldn’t make into a suitable movie of the week starring Ted Danson’s hair and Sean Maguire.
Of course, most sports dramas don’t depend largely on the sports themselves. In football films, the good ones don’t at all. Fever Pitch or Looking For Eric for example are both great films, that succeed entirely by virtue of at no point having any of the main characters be footballers.
When they are, the main bulk is usually taken up by the heart warming life story of some dashingly hansom yet brooding individual and their struggle to find time for their passion whilst working 3 jobs as a single parent and looking after their crippled black lesbian transsexual brother on life support …or something. The sports action usually comes as a climax and will almost always involve someone scoring something in the last seconds of play, often from a daringly maverick tactic of some sort that’s “never been done before” or has, but with disastrous consequences.
My point, if I have one, is that these clichés seem to work in almost all sports films, but football/soccer ones. The jaded football fan will yawn at such dramatics on the silver screen. Not because it’s so implausible that the young renegade with a heart of gold can come on with 5 minutes to go and score a hat-trick against the club that killed his parents, but because the drama can never be as potent or emotive as it is in real time.
Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s film about South Africa’s stirring 1995 Rugby World Cup victory staring Matt Damon as François Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as Morgan Freeman in a hat, is a good example of it working for another sport. The political and social backdrop was the main focus, with the Rugby itself being ramped up dramatically with slow motion, music, and all sorts of other manipulative jiggery pokery that works because Rugby can be made more emotional with the use of such tactics. Take for example England’s 2006 World Cup win. Johnny Wilkinson won it with the last kick of the game. It couldn’t possibly have gotten any more dramatic than that, and yet if you watch a replay of that moment, you can see a plethora of England fans behind the sticks, joyfully standing up with their arms raised aloft, already in mid “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in a sort of “Yes! My 8 year old son has just won the 100 meters at his school sports day” type celebration. The level of euphoria differed from person to person of course, but that kind of fist pumping is the general reaction you get from the climatic moments in most sports.
Now imagine, if you will, that Wilkinson had been Beckham, and old golden balls had converted a last minute free kick in the football World Cup final to send England to glory. Finding just one person in the crowd even able to stand up with their arms aloft amidst the melee of flying legs, arms, cups, wallets, phones and teeth would be a monumental achievement. The reaction would be seismic.
Because football makes us wait for it’s scores, the emotional out pouring that results from a particularly dramatic late goal trumps anything in any other sport on the planet. Even most players themselves say the sensation can’t ever be topped in life itself, so it’s hardly going to be achieved by a slow motion hero shot of Shia LaBoeuf.
You could make quite passably adequate films of both Manchester United and Liverpool’s ‘99 and ‘05 European Cup final wins. Both would seem ludicrously over the top to someone without knowledge of the games themselves but those with that knowledge, would never be able to top the feeling of actually watching it. United’s almost identical 5 goal comebacks against Spurs in 2001 and 2009 would seem appallingly Disney on the big screen, as would Kiko Macheda’s debut winner for the reds, or Deportivo’s four goal comeback against Milan in 2004. I could reel off hundreds of these, because football’s scripts are weirder, odder and more unbelievable than any hack writer could possibly come up with.
And this is why football can never be made into a good film, as long as the narrative focuses on the action. Because football is too good for film. But it won’t stop them trying. Here are some of the more notable efforts.
Goal: The Dream Begins – A young Mexican immigrant gardener is spotted having a kick about by a kind hearted gruff Scottish football scout and rescued from his harsh, dangerous life in lush, affluent, sunny Los Angeles and taken to the hallowed heavenly promise land of Newcastle upon Tyne to fulfill his destiny of becoming the 345th Messiah at St James Park. Complete with bizarre wistful hero shots of Kieron Dyer and Titus Bramble, the film also treats us to an awkward cameo from Becks, and a bar scene to match anything written by Tarantino as Raul and Zidane impart their guru like wisdom to our young hero, by telling him “hey, you look good, keep it up”…or something equally inspiring. The most interesting thing about this terrible film is that the actors were constantly positioned in full kit along the touchline at Newcastle games, and instructed to run on the field to celebrate any actual Toon Army goals in order to achieve the quite commendably realistic action sequences. This is all rendered useless however, as Anna Friel failed to get her kit off.
When Saturday Comes – Sean Bean lives out his own personal fantasy by playing a tough, maverick Sunday league player inexplicably scouted and signed by his boyhood love Sheffield United. After drinking, swearing, shagging, fighting and occasionally doing a passable impersonation of someone who can just about play football, Bean is brought on to face the evil Manchester United who, in contrast to the efforts of the Goal team, are portrayed here by fat, balding middle aged extra’s in ill fitting kits. Inspired by Sean’s natural skill and mullet, the Blades come back from 2-1 down to triumph 3-2, thanks to two goals from our hero, one from the penalty spot, which I do sort of have a problem with realism wise. No one would let a trainee on their debut take a penalty would they?
Escape to Victory – Pele, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles and Sylvester Stallone fight the Nazi’s with the help of Michael Caine and Ipswich Town. This is quite possibly the most fantastical football film ever made and is so ludicrous that it’s actually quite good. The highlight being Sly Stallone’s slow motion penalty save at the climax, which is the most pointlessly over the top save seen since Bruce Grobbelaar hung up his tash. The ball is basically hit straight at him, as he’s so small anywhere near the corners would’ve been too much of an ask, but the very fact he actually catches it, in a completely non goalkeeper-like way and a bit like he’s handling a hot egg, makes it’s surrealism all the better. The only football film with any football in it that deserves the status classic.
You can follow Oscar on Twitter here; http://twitter.com/oscarpyejeary, where you can remind him of some other, equally appalling attempts to make films about football.