Football films tend to be as underachieving as Newcastle United. But Neil Wills has found a few that make the grade
Mention the term “football films” to an infinite number of monkeys and they will turn in unison from their typewriters and bellow, “Escape to Victory – aaaaargh!” They’d be right too, of course. Aside from the fact that it offered a truly surreal mix of Bobby Moore and Sylvester Stallone, it is not easy to forgive a film whose actors could not play football and whose footballers could not act. Pelé actually compounded the crime six years later by appearing in something called Hotshot, whose only virtue lay in successfully making Victory look art-house by comparison.
The notoriety of Victory and a smattering of other distinguished turkeys inevitably gives the impression that no film which deals with football can cut any sort of mustard. This is unfortunate, because football films actually stand up very well when compared with other movie genres.
As a rule of thumb, one film out of every ten released will be a hit, four will break even, while five will bomb. That is not to say that box office successes are necessarily any good. Think of the last half dozen flicks you’ve seen and consider how many of them were even half way decent. Compare that ratio with the strike rate enjoyed by football films and it will become clear that they are really just victims of The Victory Effect.
Let’s get some recent clangers out of the way first though. There’s When Saturday Comes, a film whose only redeeming feature was its title (nothing to do with us); Fever Pitch bowled along at a pace that was anything but; and Best, despite its title, palpably wasn’t.
The donkeys, though, are far outnumbered by the honest journeymen. Cup Final (football as dialectic as an Israeli soldier is captured by the PLO); the venerable Arsenal Stadium Mystery (plot: a footballer is poisoned during a charity match); and Cup Fever (kids team helped out by Matt Busby’s boys – today of course they’d simply be signed up to stop other clubs getting them) which was just on the cusp of cutesy but redeemed itself by introducing the world to Susan George.
There are plenty more where they came from, not including the scores of worthy but little-known foreign language films (many with cracking titles like Nastradamus, Rupan Sansei: Kutabare! and the intriguing Slutspel) – not great works of art but a motorway distant from Kevin Costner territory.
Moving on to the genuinely good football films we discover that the game isn’t the albatross around the neck of the director that it is so often assumed to be. First off, there’s Gregory’s Girl, that diamond from the slag heap that was the early Eighties. Pure cinematic magic. Then there’s The Cup, the first film successfully to combine the televising of the World Cup with China’s oppression of Tibet. You may not have heard of Sunday Morning and Sweet FA because it was made for television in the Seventies but it is to park footballers what This Sporting Life was to psychotic rugby players. As a bonus, the football action is quite convincing too. Lest we forget, the five-a-side scene at the start of Trainspotting and the kick-about in The Full Monty didn’t hurt those films’ street cred any either.
Still not convinced? Then I call my final witness, Mr Wim Wenders, mercurial purveyor of Paris, Texas et al and, in 1971, creator of Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, aka The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty. Aside from having one of the finest titles in celluloid history, it is also a mesmerising blend of football and nihilistic theory. In case you’ve yet to see it, the plot revolves around a goalkeeper who is sent off and so commits a motiveless murder. Now, if only he’d decided instead to massacre a certain group of football-playing POWs...
From WSC 163 September 2000. What was happening this month