What’s the greatest football movie you’ve ever seen? If you can come up with anything better than Escape To Victory, give yourself a pat on the back. Football may be the most popular sport in the world, but its legacy on the big screen remains spotty at best. If cinematic pioneer Alexandre Promio had known what was to follow when he shot a forty-second film of a match in 1897, one wonders whether he would have bothered at all.
While the likes of boxing and basketball have proven natural fits for cinematic storytelling over the years, replicating the thrills and spills of football on the big screen has proven a far more elusive art. There have certainly been no shortage of attempts, yet the most successful have tended to focus their attention on the drama taking place off the pitch rather than on it.
One of the earliest efforts, 1939’s The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, offers up a few glorious shots of early twentieth century Highbury, but its murder-mystery plot uses the sport more as set dressing than as an integral part of the drama. The Great Game, a 1953 comedy-drama starring Thora Hird and Diane Dors, is a fascinating curio revolving around a club chairman tapping up an opposition player a full half-century before Peter Kenyon and Ashley Cole decided to do lunch, but the beautiful game itself is once again notable only by its absence.
Even as football has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry over the past two decades, filmmakers have continued to find it more interesting as a backdrop than as a source of drama in its own right. Two of the most critically acclaimed football-related movies in recent times have been Fever Pitch (1997) and The Damned United (2009), adaptations of excellent novels whose protagonists are nevertheless stuck firmly behind the sidelines. The same goes for the rise of the hooligan movie in the mid-to-late 2000s (The Football Factory; Green Street; The Firm), which used football as a fresh hook for the creatively exhausted British gangster movie.
So why has the sporting side of football been so consistently ignored by filmmakers, and why have audiences largely ignored what few efforts there have been? After all, you’d be hard pressed to argue that football doesn’t provide the kind of thrilling, unpredictable, emotionally gripping spectacle that great movies thrive on. What’s the problem?
Perhaps one is the importance of rhythm and flow to the football experience. Whether it be two similarly matched teams picking apart the weaknesses in each other’s defences, a heroic underdog snatching an early goal and defending valiantly to the final whistle, or two superpowers putting on a virtuoso display of non-stop attacking excitement, football’s stories are told in long passages of unbroken play.
The invisible hand of the editor is betrayed by having to slice two 45-minute halves into a series of seconds-long vignettes, usually relying on voice-over commentary to fill in the gaps. Compare that to American sports, where regular timeouts in the NFL and basketball, innings changes in baseball and three-minute rounds in boxing segment the action into easily digestible chunks, making them naturally amenable to an editing process which does not exist in football.
You only have to look at the adidas-sponsored, FIFA-endorsed Goal! trilogy (2007-2009) for an example of everything going spectacularly wrong. The off-field segments dealing with the protagonist’s personal struggles are clunky enough, but scenes set during matches are so heavily edited they become choppy to the point of incoherence. Free-kicks occur from nothing. Goals are scored with no indication as to whether they are with or against the run of play. Actors run clumsily between superstar names with their backs oh-so-conveniently turned, while edited-in archive footage only makes them look more conspicuously out of place.
When it comes to putting match action on-screen, filmmakers have enjoyed greater success by looking to capture the spirit rather than the reality of the game. The delightfully loopy Escape To Victory (1981) is considerably more successful at creating an emotional connection with its audience through a cast of oddball characters – including, let’s not forget, Sylvester Stallone as a goalkeeper – than the Goal! movies’ over-reliance on stock footage. Shaolin Soccer, probably the most unrealistic and certainly the funniest football film ever made, takes a fantastical, frenetic approach to conveying the joy of football in the style of a living cartoon.
More realistic depictions have prospered by seeking out the little character dramas taking place within each match rather than making results the key area of conflict. Think of the hilarious schoolboy game in Ken Loach’s Kes (1961), which is really about a bullying PE teacher receiving his comeuppance rather than one team beating the other. In Gregory’s Girl (1980), the affably dorky protagonist’s real goal is to show some degree of sporting prowess to impress his dream girl, who happens to be playing up front.
It’s a universal truth of good drama that characters come first. When we know what the stakes are for one or two specific players taking the field, the game itself becomes exciting by association. In real life, the joy of football comes from its unpredictability and the emotional attachment between a fan and their adopted team. Scripted drama might not be able to replicate that, but can make its victories just as thrilling when it means the boy gets the girl, the villain is humiliated, and yes, Sylvester Stallone saves a last minute penalty from a Nazi kommandant.