Action replay

The United States’ most famous victory, perhaps England’s most famous defeat, is being made into a film and, as Dave Hannigan reports, a rock star plays Stan Mortenson

Discovering Gavin Rossdale, lead singer of Bush, husband of No Doubt’s Gwen Ste­fani, will play Stan Mortensen in a forthcoming movie about America’s 1-0 victory over England at Belo Hor­izonte in the 1950 World Cup was initially wor­rying. So soon after Bend It Like Beckham grossed over $25 million (£16m) in 18 weeks at the US box office, this sounded perilously like the beginning of some horrendous Hollywood attempt to cash-in on the game’s perceived current trendiness.

Turns out that The Game Of Their Lives has been in the works for nearly seven years. Adapted from Geof­frey Douglas’s hugely underrated book – which weaves the life stories of the American team around their greatest match – the last batch of shooting on this $40m (£25.5m) production was scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in August. In an obvious attempt to alienate English audiences, producer David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo have even cast Scot­sman Gerard Butler, last seen mixing it with Ang­elina Jolie’s Lara Croft in The Cradle Of Life, in the role of charismatic goalkeeper and team leader Frank Borghi.

In a genre usually hallmarked by mediocrity, Ans­paugh and Pizzo have amassed some serious street cred since their first collaboration, Hoosiers (known as Best Shot in the UK), back in 1986. Recently ranked sixth in Sports Illustrated’s top 50 sports movies of all time, this basketball drama loosely based on an actual event stars Gene Hackman as a high school coach in 1950s In­diana who leads his team to an improbable victory in the state championship. Seven years later, their next movie, Rudy, told the true story of Daniel Ruettiger, a kid from Illinois who overcame tremendous odds to fulfil a, yes, im­probable, dream and play all of 27 se­conds for the Notre Dame college gridiron team.

Hardly surprising, then, that the men behind such feel-good fare would recognise the fecund potential in one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. The England squad was so talented that Walter Winterbottom decided to allow Stanley Matthews to remain in Rio to rest a slight injury ahead of the next game against Spain. Four of the American team hailed from a single neighbourhood in St Louis. Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian who washed dishes in a New York hotel in order to finance accountancy studies, scored the winning goal. Thirteen years later, he would disappear at the hands of the TonTon Macoutes secret police in his homeland.

Anspaugh and Pizzo sought to offset deficiencies in their sporting knowledge by retaining Eric Wynalda, the former USA striker, as a consultant. Every actor had two weeks’ intensive coaching to ensure the action scenes are as authentic as possible and, during filming in St Louis earlier this summer, Borghi and his surviving team-mates Harry Keough and Gino Pariani were regulars on the set. Having earned a reputation as sticklers for detail in Rudy and Hoosiers, it will be interesting to see how the creative duo have treated some of the more controversial incidents in the game.

It’s all very well employing Wynalda and getting Keough, Borghi and Pariani to advise the actors playing them if they don’t properly feature incidents such as a “goal” from an Alf Ramsey free-kick that was judged not to have crossed the line, or Charley Columbo diving full length to pull Mortensen down by the ankles on the edge of the box in the 82nd minute.

“I have to do really crazy stuff like run through the whole field, beat everyone, and, just at the end, stop – and someone takes my legs out,” said Rossdale, who also informed his band’s website that he makes just one significant speech and gets called an “asshole” by one of his opponents. “I used to play a lot of soccer but it was never quite like this. Stan Mortensen was a really great English footballer to boot.”

The Game Of Their Lives is out next year. Just a hunch, but the Sun might just be a little upset by some of it.

From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month