The PPH guide to football on film: 1st half

Over the years, there has been a surprisingly voluminous crossover between football and film, with a number of movies taking the beautiful game on as a subject matter, footballers turning (often unwisely) to acting, and entire sub-genres being created in its honour. As a new documentary – The Referees – hits UK screens, and the domestic season finally gets underway again, Permanent Plastic Helmet would like to take the opportunity to lead you on a journey through football on film, revelling in the good, laughing heartily at the bad, and refusing to shy away from the ugly (and boy, does it get ugly).

Football on screen

Escape to Victory (1981)

The beautiful game has been used as a starting point for many a film aiming to get to the heart of the human condition. With its emotional peaks and troughs, moments of high skill and low farce, passion and commitment, football is the perfect backdrop upon which to set a human story.

Blessed with a fast pace and unpredictable rhythms, the action of the game itself is rather difficult to capture authentically without looking fake or telegraphed, as director Alan Parker (Angel Heart, The Commitments) has elucidated: “Every time I’ve ever been asked to do a film about football I say ‘no’ … it’s an impossibly difficult sport to replicate because football is seen primarily in wide-shot. The excitement unfolds seeing at least four players in one shot. This is very difficult to cheat. The illusion of film is about editing and close-ups”. Popular 90s Sky TV drama Dream Team took the novel approach of integrating close-up and mid shots with existing game footage, and simply coloured in the shirts (Harchester Rovers wore purple) on the wide shots.

Perhaps the most successful examples of the genre, as suggested by Glenn Moore in The Independent, are those that relegate reconstruction to the margins. The likeable Bend it Like Beckham (2002) was a huge critical and commercial success, and used the game as a background to a universal tale of cultural and familial relationships. Similarly, Bill Forsyth’s utterly charming 1980 comedy Gregory’s Girl, which used the gangling charms of teenage star John Gordon Sinclair to great effect, told the story of a young dreamer captivated by the talents of a female footballer at his school, yet ultimately finding love with a more suitable partner. Widely regarded as one of the very first football-themed films, 1939’s The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (not, as some wags have suggested, “why is it so quiet?”) is a witty thriller which used football action sparingly yet effectively, prompting Martin Scorsese to comment that, “[even as] someone who can’t stand sports – soccer, anything with a ball – I find the soccer scenes exhilarating”.

1995‘s Fever Pitch, based upon the novel of the same name by Nick Hornby, circumvented the issue of staging action by basing its love story upon real events; the tense run-in to Arsenal’s 1988-89 league title winning season, which provided a thrillingly believable backdrop to Colin Firth’s romantic victory. In a similar vein to Fever Pitch, BBC TV movie My Summer With Des was a touching (and vaguely supernatural, if I remember correctly) romance starring Neil Morrissey and Rachel Weisz which was aired to coincide with the beginning of World Cup 98. Other likeable football-themed movies which capitalized on the post-Euro ’96 English football afterglow were Manc scamp fantasy There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble and Purely Belter, which charted two young Geordies’ desperate attempts to secure season tickets for Newcastle. Newcastle United was the destination for Kuno Becker’s Mexican ingénue Santiago Munez in the first of the Goal! trilogy – a series of gently entertaining films with adequately directed football sequences that ultimately suffered from cliche overdrive and a case of diminishing returns.

When football action on film doesn’t work, however, it really doesn’t work. Maria Giese’s When Saturday Comes, which follows the fortunes of factory worker Jimmy Muir (Sean Bean) and his debut at 36 (36!) for Sheffield United, is a real underhit back-pass of a film. With its crunching Def Leppard soudtrack, and pseudo-‘Angry Young Man’, This Sporting Life-esque vibe, When Saturday Comes fails on every conceivable level, and the only angry young men would have been those who had parted with cash to see the film at the cinema. If you really need convincing, the people who made the trailer gave away the entire plot in just over two minutes, thus kindly precluding the need for anybody to sit through the whole thing.

Even sillier than When Saturday Comes, yet vastly more enjoyable due to its extraordinarily motley crew of a cast and epically sweeping story, is John Huston’s Escape to Victory (or simply Victory, as it’s known in North America). Based on 1962 Hungarian war drama Two Half Times in Hell, …Victory focuses upon a group of World War II POWs who agree to play a friendly against a German team, only to find themselves involved in a propaganda stunt. The film flirts consistently with the ludicrous and dances with the predictable, but any film that manages to shoehorn Max von Sydow, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Bobby Moore, Pele, and Russell Osman onto a screen at the same time deserves a watch (the high profile professional footballers proving a surreal yet genuine tang of authenticity). Another highly regarded war-themed football film is Miracle of Bern from 2003, which tells the tale of a young German boy and his depressed ex-POW father against the backdrop of the “miracle” West Germany victory in the 1954 World Cup in Bern, Switzerland. 

At the other end of the spectrum – and further underlining the international appeal of the game and its appropriateness for cinematic representation – is Stephen Chow’s barking mad and truly brilliant kung-fu comedy Shaolin Soccer. Taking the absurdity of the game to it’s limit and beyond, Chow’s film is an ingenious blend of choreographed physical humour, special effects and bone-crunching violence, featuring the likes of “Mighty Steel Leg” Sing, Hooking Leg and “Golden Leg” Fung.  Khyentse Norbu’s immensely touching Tibetan comedy The Cup follows two young football-mad Tibetan monks in India who desperately try to source a TV so that they are able to watch the 1998 World Cup Final (an event which, incidentally, was perhaps more interesting for the will-he, won’t-he play? drama of Brazilian Ronaldo).

Rodney Dangerfield in the the appalling Ladybugs (1993)

The popularity of football in America has been incrementally on the rise for a number of years but, as evidenced by the fervour which surrounded the women’s team at the recent World Cup in Germany, it is perhaps still most strongly perceived as ladies sport, and certainly more popular amongst youngsters. Accordingly, The US is responsible for pumping out a surfeit of school-based soccer comedies, including Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s The Man and Will Ferrell in Kicking and Screaming, which, with takings of over $56m worldwide, is actually the highest-ever grossing football themed picture. The best thing you could say for 1993 cross-dressing comedy Ladybugs, starring the late Jonathan Brandis, the late Rodney Dangerfield, and the presumably not-late Jackee Harry (aka Tia and Tamera’s mum from Sister Sister) was that it adequately represented the kick and rush chaos of small girls playing football. Sadly, it also happened to be astonishingly sexist and homophobic. Redressing the balance somewhat was Gracie, starring Leaving Las Vegas‘ Elisabeth Shue – a personal film that drew upon Shue’s own football-mad family, and was dedicated to her older brother William, a talented footballer who died at the age of 26.

Those of an existential, more Euro-centric bent need look no further than Wim Wenders’ bleak The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty from 1972, in which a goalkeeper, red-carded for a professional foul, disappears into the night to murder a cinema cashier. The whereabouts of Jens Lehmann after his 2006 Champions League final red card remain a mystery, although a one-night-only spike in the murder stats of the surrounding St Denis suburbs certainly provides a clue.

Despite not featuring football as the main thrust of the narrative, there are a number of notable moments in films that look to the inherent drama of the game to advance the plot, or simply provide a colourful break from the story.

The Secret In Their Eyes, the enjoyable Argentine potboiler that mystifyingly pipped both A Prophet and The White Ribbon to the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009, features perhaps the finest football sequence in a non-football film to date.

Beginning with an aerial shot over Argentine side Huracan’s glowing Estadio Tomás Adolfo Ducó stadium, the camera sweeps in to join a team at the point of a sweeping counter-attack.  The attack ends with a shot glancing off the crossbar, but the camera continues to travel at speed into the crowd, eventually locating our hero Esposito and his partner on the lookout for their target: a rape-murder suspect. A goal is scored, the stadium erupts and the target is spotted, catalysing a riveting chase sequence that takes us around the interior of the stadium and finally ends on the pitch – all in one single take. The scene took a scarcely believable three months of pre-production, three days of shooting and nine months of post production to complete. It was absolutely worth it.

Certainly the funniest football on film sequence taps into our collective, hazy childhood memories of playing the game with adults. In Ken Loach’s Kes (to be screened as part of a major retrospective of the director’s work at the BFI in September) Brian Glover plays the tyrannical P.E. teacher Mr Sugden, who assumes the role of star striker, referee and commentator all at once.

Other critically acclaimed international films including Lukas Moodysson’s Together (the wonderfully shambolic match that concludes the film is a must-see), Laurent Cantet’s The Class, Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, Meirelles and Lund’s City of God and even Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, with its desultory prison kickabouts, illustrate how deeply woven into the fabric of international society that the game is.

Movie managers

A concerned Mike Bassett

Largely held accountable for a team’s successes and failures, the football manager is a natural choice for a dramatic protagonist. The astonishing 1993 TV documentary An Impossible Job charted England’s fraught, and ultimately unsuccessful World Cup USA ’94  qualifying campaign as presided over by the fraying Graham “The Turnip” Taylor. In its unsparing portrayal of a lexicon-mangling man on the edge (“DO I NOT LIKE THAT?”, “I’M A METRE! I’M A METRE!”) its influence can be seen clearly in Mike Bassett: England Manager, an amusing comedy starring Ricky Tomlinson as a lower league manager given the top job after his predecessor dies of a heart attack. Mike Bassett spawned a less successful TV series, but the original remains a canny, knowing look at the stresses and strains of the job.

On a more serious note, 2009’s The Damned United saw the world’s highest paid impersonator Michael Sheen take on one of his toughest challenges to date. Based on the expletive-ridden novel by David Peace (worth knowing before you give it to Granddad for Christmas), The Damned United charts the tempestuous 44 days in which Brian Clough took charge of his detested Leeds United. Despite a slightly Sunday afternoon TV drama vibe, it is amongst the most well-received football-themed films of recent years and features fine performances all round. Timothy Spall is excellent as Clough’s right-hand man Peter Taylor, despite resembling his subject about as much as he did Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech (also directed, incidentally, by The Damned United’s Tom Hooper).

Whilst not strictly film-related, I am unable to resist the temptation to include a link to the greatest managerial breakdown caught on camera to date. Method actors of the future should sit back and absorb the molten fury of John Gregory lookalike John Sitton, as he explodes during a half-time team talk, and offers one of his underperforming Leyton Orient charges out… to dinner?!

…and on that rather frightening note, the first half draws to a close. The second half of the Permanent Plastic Helmet guide to football looks at hooliganism on film, footballers who turn to acting, and documentaries on the game. See you in fifteen.

2 thoughts on “The PPH guide to football on film: 1st half

  1. Rick

    A nice article, but it truly irritates me that the myth of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was one of the earliest football feature films is perpetuated so readily. Chelsea were involved in at least two examples long before, in 1920 and 1930. The films were The Winning Goal and The Great Game, the latter of which even resides and is viewable at the BFI. There are almost certainly many other examples involving other clubs in the 19 years before TASM. The real Mystery is why the Arsenal film has been given such undeserved status.


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