In the Hands of the Gods

A documentary film that shows five diverse Britons on a road trip across the Americas to visit Maradona is the cinema’s best offering about the game in ages, in the view of Taylor Parkes

Perhaps the reason In the Hands of the Gods is the first enjoyable film about football for many, many years is that it’s not really “about football”. The cinema has never come close to capturing the atmosphere of a match, for players or supporters, and has only ever dealt with the mental/emotional/character-based aspects of the game in terms of cliche. We’ve all seen at least one of these efforts – Yesterday’s Hero, When Saturday Comes, Goal! – and been sick in a cup. This is different: a plot-driven documentary that doesn’t flinch, a cinéma vérité account of five freestylers busking their way across the Americas, ball-juggling for money, in the hope of reaching Buenos Aires and meeting their idol, Diego Maradona.

We follow them all the way, excitable and bickering in New York City, tired and dirty in Memphis, drunk and desperate in Acapulco. They could be five amateur tango dancers on the hunt for Eduardo Arquimbau, it wouldn’t matter – what the film is about is relentless character study, interesting people in interesting situations, the old chasing-a-dream hoopla happening here and now. Hope, pain, frustration, the struggle to be a man, the rage to live, a search for meaning – it’s like an early Pete Townshend song with around-the-worlds. Nearly two hours long without a single shot of a competitive match, it says more about what football really is than any number of hired hunks pretending to kick each other.

In the Hands of the Gods takes chances, at least. The whole film is a gamble, in fact: it depends as much on the honesty and personality of its stars as it does on the long-shot premise. There’s Woody, self-appointed team captain, who looks like Frank Lampard starring in Hollyoaks, and whose authority (and slight pomposity) is constantly undermined by the others. His mate Danny, resplendent in blond designer mullet, is a likeable London lad with a soft centre; Jeremy is a well spoken pastor’s son who worries out loud that his companions “haven’t been saved”, while Mikey is the Scousest man alive, ragged- arsed and endlessly resourceful. Most complex is Sami, a Somalian refugee who has ended up in Leeds, fallen in with a bad crowd and is now trying to get back on the straight and narrow; his fixed scowl speaks of grim experience.

They’re mismatched, up to a point –Woody is doing fine, appearing in Sky Sports adverts and bagging a part in Dream Team, while, until recently, Sami was selling crack and living on the roof of the local KwikSave – but they share a kind of ravenous restlessness, an internal punch-up between dreams and demons. Most have been rejected by top-flight sides and have something to prove; since they all have skills to make a seal blush, why did they fail to make the grade? Too dazzling and poetic for English coaches, or incapable of functioning as part of a team? Sticking them in a hire car and turning them loose in a foreign country is one way of answering the question.

It could so easily have been nauseating (“They were searching for a hero, but they found… themselves”) but, wisely, the mood is brusque and unsentimental. The occasional moments of mawkishness are down to the subjects rather than the film-makers, who resist the temptations of soupy background music and forced pathos. Mikey’s damp-eyed, overwrought soliloquy to camera, when he chooses to break from the others and go it alone, looks exactly what it is – someone getting slightly carried away – and makes the audience titter, rather than weep, or puke. Evidently, the makers’ attitude to editing is as uncompromising as their attitude to the cast (who they refused to finance in any way for the duration of filming, even when the whole project looked likely to implode). The tone is sympathetic, but not indulgent.

What Diego and his disciples have in common, ultimately, is a connection to what first made football seem like magic, when you were three feet tall and muddy-kneed. Sharp and atmospheric, it’s as good an antidote to Andy Townsend’s face as you’re likely to find, without kicking anything yourself.

From WSC 246 August 2007