Goals on Film: Why don’t football and cinema mix?

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Boxing has Raging Bull, wrestling has The Wrestler, baseball has Moneyball. But where is that great football movie?

When it comes to The Beautiful Game, there will always a few things that shroud the sport in mystery. Conundrums such as “why does Neymar insist on having exhaustingly terrible hair?”, “why does the English national side constantly cause heartache for the nation?”,  and “why has there never been a landmark film that celebrates football for the amazing spectacle that it is?” have been many the topic of a barroom debate over the years. The first two questions can be answered quite easily: life’s cruel and that’s just the way it is, but the latter query will always be a source of confusion for those who enjoy both exciting, and often emotional, forms of entertainment.

Unless you’re Rickie Lambert, factor worker-turned-Liverpool benchwarmer, a player’s story is usually not one of significance

Looking across the pond, it appears American audiences have become accustomed to two types of sports film: the rags-to-riches personal tale and the one where it takes a team to realise they need to play together in order to succeed. Films like Rocky, The Fighter and Warrior were all about one or two down-and-out characters who consider fighting physically and allegorically the only way in which they can overcome their own conflict. In addition, the monetary reward of these bouts, be it UFC or a high stakes boxing matchup, create a way in which the protagonist can change their life around.

Looking to football, unless you’re Rickie Lambert, making your way up from factory worker to Liverpool benchwarmer, a player’s story is usually not one of significance. The general route to stardom goes: get noticed by a talent scout, get moulded into a bright young spark in a youth academy, and then, at the tender age of 17, smash one in against Aston Villa, thus creating a buzz.

Read more: Why F1 is a perfect sport for film

The alternative of the collective-team-working-together schtick, however, should work well in a football drama. All you would need to do is create a side that is notorious for struggling (England); they take part in a scenario where they can show the world what they’re made of (the World Cup); they start off shaky, but then learn to play as a team, and achieve better than anyone anticipated. OK, yes, I’ve just listed the plot of the Mike Bassett: England Manager, which was mediocre and inaccessible to any market other than people up for a bit a slight chuckle post-pub. Maybe, when it comes to British football films, filmmakers just don’t know how to deal with sincerity in sport.

Mike Bassett is a farce from start to finish, and the half-time talk makes for the only stirring moment. Compared, though, to Pacino’s impassioned speech to his team in Any Given Sunday, it seems like a northern bloke spitting obscenities. But also, perhaps, there is something to be said about the modern game. The Damned United, which remains one of very few decent football films, is set amongst the gritty backdrop of 70s Britain. Not every player was on 100k a week, so to actually make some decent money, you had to work your socks off , and work hard in a unit – a romantic setting where prima donnas were few and far between.

Because of the lack of belief in football films, it is fair to assume that this has affected the genre financially. Where there has been the odd success in films like Bend It Like Beckham, there have been numerous low budget, poorly acted and terribly written football films that have tainted the subject matter. A shining example is the made-for-TV, yet brilliantly acted and Gary Oldman-fronted The Firm, which Nick Love decided to remake in 2009 and sully its very memory. Love’s version has nothing of the realism of the original, where Oldman’s Bex was genuinely a frightening thug, hell-bent on defending the reputation of his team. The dialogue is full of exaggerated rhyming slang that becomes exhausting (apart from the use of the insult “oi, dry lunch”, which is still a genuinely hilarious thing to call a pal).

King’s Speech helmer Tom Hooper oversaw The Damned United, but usually it’s nobodies that make features concerning football

The succession of hooligan-based football films is something that one day needs to end. Sure, The Football Factory’s point was that these thugs cared more about violence than their own team, but the overall message, that this is just how some people are, is infuriating when an audience has had to endure 90 minutes of such unlikeable people. And sure, The King’s Speech helmer Tom Hooper oversaw The Damned United, but usually it’s nobodies that attempt to make features concerning football. Goal! has a compelling concept: a young Mexican makes his way out of poverty to become a member of the top flight footballing class. It has a heart, but it generally feels hackneyed and corny. But then what do you expect from a director who also was behind I Still Know What You Did Last Summer?

Football and cinema have mixed well in the past – as well as the aforementioned, Fever Pitch was a perfectly likeable film adapted from the semi-autobiographical Nick Hornby text. But like with the England national side, for any success in the near-future, there needs to be a sizeable overhaul. With an original, engaging and full-of-heart script, a collection of actors that can bring to life a more interesting collection of footballers and managers, rather than the three-dimensional offerings of the past, and finally, a director who understands the game and the sport’s culture, maybe one day we’ll have a Moneyball of our own. Or at the very least, a rip-off of The Mighty Ducks.

 

Read more: How to watch the game: A guide to sports television

 

Featured image: Warner Bros

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