We hope you enjoyed the first half of our guide to football on film. The second half is ready to kick off, as we turn our attentions to football violence, footballers-turned-actors and documentaries about the beautiful game.
Hooliganism at the movies
What, dear reader, could be possibly more masculine than ripping up plastic chairs, frightening innocent bystanders and spewing racist abuse at Johnny Foreigner? That’s right, nothing. As such, countless writers and directors, under the pretext of “exploring masculinity”, have turned their hand to the thorny topic of football hooliganism, which has, over time, formed its own torrid sub-genre.
As we shall see, a hazard of depicting this milieu cinematically is to fall into the trap of fetishizing violent young men and consequently failing to provide anything approaching a rigorous critical approach. In a rare example of a film of this type which doesn’t glamourize violence, 1989’s The Firm, by legendary director Alan Clarke (Scum, Made in Britain) – and later remade by Nick Love – stars Gary Oldman as alliterative arsehole Bex Bissell; a Thatcherite estate agent by day and rabble rousing West Ham thug at night. Bissell is in charge of a crew of ne’er do wells comprised of some familiar TV faces (including Eastenders’ Phil Mitchell, Coronation Street’s Jim MacDonald, and err… Only Fools and Horses’ Mickey Pearce). The best thing about The Firm is Oldman’s intense, coiled snake performance, and while it has dated poorly, it clearly and commendably seeks to examine the root cause of such abominable behaviour in the context of Thatcher’s Britain.
Philip Davis, who played Bissell’s peroxide-haired nemesis Yeti in The Firm, clearly had unfinished business in the world of football hooliganism, and went on to direct 1994’s I.D., a rather ropey drama which to this day can be found in any respectable bargain bin, identifiable by the cover shot of a grimacing Warren Clarke clutching a baseball bat whilst clad in an unpleasantly clingy black t-shirt.
The chief exponent of the hooligan film in the modern day is the aforementioned Nick Love, who has made violence amongst young males his major currency as a storyteller. His first, and perhaps most successful foray into such territory was 2004’s The Football Factory, in which Chelsea “headhunters” and Millwall “bushwhackers” go head-to-head, with Danny Dyer beginning to hone his peculiarly individual faux-hardnut/little boy lost schtick in the middle of it all. Perhaps inevitably, Love felt compelled to remake The Firm in 2009. It wasn’t very good, and definitively eschewed Clarke’s interrogative streak and grainy aesthetic in favour of crafting glutinously slick visuals, much like The Football Factory.
When I lived for a year in New Jersey, scores of enthusiastic Americans asked me if Green Street (or Green Street Hooligans, as it is known Stateside) – starring hobbit Elijah Wood as a putative thug – was reflective of real life terrace culture. A befuddled Roger Ebert, failing to get to grips with “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, gave the film a glowing review, but I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, because the oversentimental, cliche-ridden (slo-mo, operatic violence in full effect) Green Street is not just one of the worst football-themed films, but perhaps one of the most ridiculous full stop. Geordie-born Queer as Folk star Charlie Hunnam’s sensationally poor Cock-er-nee accent (see below) is almost worth the entrance fee alone. Perhaps the last word on Green Street should go to the Washington Post’s Deeson Thomson, who tartly declared, “Soccer needs this movie like Georgia needed Deliverance.”
Despite the general lack of quality, a sub-genre had been born, and amongst the rest of the litter 2009’s Awaydays (based on the novel by Kevin Sampson) is probably the most palatable, coasting by on style and possessed of a super soundtrack, but with little substance. Far less successful was Cass, a dodgy biopic of West Ham’s Inter City Firm hardnut Cass Pennant, best known to a generation of fans as the guy who popped up on Match of the Day to darkly intone the staggeringly inane aphorism “Pele was Pele. Gazza was Gazza. Joey Cole is Joey Cole”. Other hooligan flicks that should be consigned to the dustbin of history include the unwatchable Rise of the Footsoldier, and Green Street 2, which performed the neat trick of being even worse than the first one, despite bizarrely featuring Vernon Wells, aka Bennett from Commando in a supporting role.
Footballers as actors
Once upon a time it seemed that footballers, upon retirement, were content to run a country pub, or settle into a pundit’s armchair to spout the usual platitudes. The mercurial Frenchman Eric Cantona changed all that, and in acting he found the perfect outlet for a temperament so artistic that he once felt compelled to kung-fu kick an errant Crystal Palace fan in the face. Cantona’s first major role was as Monsieur de Foix in Shekhar Kapur’s period drama Elizabeth, and he followed this up by starring opposite a talking chimpanzee and a maverick monk in the madcap comedy Mookie. Not to be outdone, Cantona’s contemporary and countryman David Ginola was to try his hand at acting, starring in a
little never seen short entitled Rosbeef, about a hunky butcher setting hearts aflutter in rural France. While Ginola’s acting career foundered, Cantona forged ahead and was last seen in Kes director Ken Loach’s excellent 2009 comedy-drama Looking For Eric.
Vinnie Jones, the ex-Wimbledon and Chelsea hardman, also turned to acting after hanging up his boots, and cut an impressive swathe playing vicious yet charismatic thugs in Guy Ritchie’s first two films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. A leading role in 2001’s prison football drama Mean Machine followed, and a career in Hollywood beckoned for the big man. Jones, however, hampered by a near-total lack of range (and rumours of an ever-expanding opinion of himself), has seen his acting career peter out into into straight-to-DVD obscurity (an amusing cameo in Ultra Culture favourite EuroTrip notwithstanding). Jones also found himself the subject of a hilariously vicious parody in Mark Wootton’s ‘La La Land’ on BBC3 (“DON’T SASS ME!“), and will soon be seen starring as “Nancy” alongside Burt Reynolds and Chevy Chase in the frightful-sounding Not Another Not Another Movie. Christ.
Perhaps understandably, given the performative nature of both disciplines, Jones was not the only ex-pro who longed for the bright lights of Hollywood. As unbelievable as it still seems today, Stan “The Can” Collymore was cast in Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction as Sharon Stone’s lover, although he was bumped off before the opening credits (still, he was in it for longer than he was at Bradford).
If the jury is out on Collymore, it is very much in for some. Anyone who thinks acting is easy should look no further than Alan Shearer, who singularly fails to convincingly portray Alan Shearer in a brief cameo in Goal! Others who have struggled to acquit themselves include mean-looking ex-Sheffield Wednesday defender Mel Sterland, who appeared as Sean Bean’s nemesis in When Saturday Comes, and Ian Wright in Gun of the Black Sun, about a music mad Neo-Nazi who murders families (yes, really). Credit goes to the Who Ate All The Pies website for the spot. Rather distressingly, 1966 World Cup hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst is lined up to appear as a football agent in urban thriller Payback Season, where he will share screen time with cast members of Adulthood and Street Dance 3D.
Stranger still, the late George Best had a fleeting cameo in 1971 oddity Percy, starring Hywel Bennett as the recipient of the world’s first successful penis transplant. Staying on the theme of penile health, a bearded Pele, emboldened by Escape to Victory, appeared in 1987’s Hotshot to mentor US soccer hopeful Jimmy Kristidis (Jim Youngs). According to Amazon.com commenter Eric J.F. “this is the greatest movie that i have ever seen”, suggesting that Eric J.F. is either Pele in disguise or has only ever seen a small handful of films. Watch the climax below and decide for yourself. You really must.
Having proved himself comfortable on camera under fire from Sue Barker’s benign inquisitions in A Question of Sport, cheeky chappie Ally McCoist was cast as the romantic lead in Oscar winner Robert Duvall’s saccharine 2000 drama A Shot At Glory, which focused on the fictional Scottish side Kilnockie F.C. The film flopped, but McCoist did exceptionally well to keep a straight face when confronted by Duvall’s Fergie-on-Mogadon mannerisms and the worst Scottish accent this side of Christopher Lambert in Highlander; he sounds like Sean Connery playing Gandhi playing Duncan Bannatyne. Seriously, check it out. Having turned his back on the acting game, McCoist now has to concentrate on keeping a straight face while managing in the SPL every week.
When it comes to flexing their creative muscle, even managers have been known to get in on the act. It is a little-known fact that Terry Venables (using the bizarre pseudonym P.B. Yuill) was the co-creator of 70s TV cop show Hazell, starring Nicholas Ball as James Hazell, an “American-style hardboiled dick prowling the meaner streets of London, the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell-button.”
Documentaries and experimenta
Up until his chest-thumping headbutt on pantomime villian Marco Materazzi in the final of the 2006 World Cup final, French international Zinedine Zidane floated above his contemporaries like a footballing deity. The man’s genius was captured on film in the same year in a moody, multi-camera piece entitled Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, soundtracked by indie noise merchants Mogwai and hailed by critic Jason Solomons as the best football film ever made. It isn’t that, but is certainly a powerful, hypnotic work which undoubtedly reflects the mysterious aura of the great man. A 21st Century Portrait was not without precedent, being largely influenced by a 1971 film from German director Hellmuth Costard entitled Football Like Never Before, which utilized 8 16-mm cameras to track the movements of George Best in a league game.
On a similar theme, in the 2007 documentary Substitute, aptly described by Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent as “more Barton Fink than Thierry Henry”, French international Vikash Dhorasoo offers existential musings on his peripatetic career and life as a perennial bit-part player. Little seen in the UK, Substitute is a sensitive, perceptive piece that certainly deserves more exposure than it’s had.
Simply because it exists, I should give a cursory mention to David, artist Sam Taylor-Wood’s Warhol-esque film of a sleeping David Beckham. The Liverpool Museum press release boasts of a “stunning video portrait … shot in one long take”, but Russian Ark this ain’t. According to the Telegraph’s Richard Dorment, Taylor-Wood “ignores the football star and focuses on the hunk, seeing him through the eyes not of a sports fan but of a woman” – that may be, but for the perfect mix of art installation and football, one should pay a visit to the back garden of eccentric Derby County goalkeeper Stephen Bywater.
Perhaps the best football documentary is the captivating Once In A Lifetime, laconically narrated by Matt Dillon, which tells the tale of the stunning but short-lived New York Cosmos in the 1970s. Sharing its title with the Talking Heads song that communicates with near-confouding clarity the sheer unknowability of the human condition, it encapsulates the fascination, hubris, character, unpredictability and sheer excitement of the greatest game in the world.
So, ladies and gents, that’s full-time for the Permanent Plastic Helmet guide to football on film. What’s your favourite football film? What did we miss? Tell us in the comments section below.
Someday, someone studying Sociology is going to write a paper on the impact of football on society, and will find this a handy reference. (S/he just better not steal your turns of phrase.)
It’s so difficult to do football justice on film, but I think Guy Ritchie’s Nike commercial comes pretty close: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZA-57h64kE
You have not mentioned: The Van.
Bravo – a pretty definitive guide! Agree with you about that stunning sequence in The Secret in Their Eyes and also that fiction football films almost always fall down as soon as they try to stage actual playing action – even the classier offerings like The Damned United. Real athletes > actors would be my first rule in that regard…
As it happens, I’ve just posted my review of The Referees, the doc you mention. It was very interesting, with on-pitch sequences reminiscent of the Zidane film, if a bit less… persitent. Check it: http://shotthroughawindow.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/the-referees/
Thanks. Yes, I think that Pele/Hotshot clip is possibly the most compelling example against staging action. I love the way the guy has time to nonchalantly do a few kick-ups!
Will have a read of your review shortly.
Blimey, THAT is what I call exhaustive. Amazing stuff Ash, it’s a bicycle-kick-volley of an article. As Cathy said, if somebody starts a dissertation on football and films, he’ll feel pretty lucky to find this.
Anyway – just one film I’d like to mention (it’s French of course) : “Coup de Tete” by Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of The Rose, Seven Years in Tibet, etc.), a heartfelt comedy-drama about a factory worker from a little town where football is sacred, who loses everything after hitting the local star-player in training (his place in the team, then his job – the factory owns the club, as often in this kind of area) before ending up in prison after being framed for a rape he didn’t commit. Eventually, the team has to play a big cup game and need to recall him as they need a winger… He’s then authorised to leave his cell to play the game, and dictates his conditions. It fits perfectly into the Ken Loach-ian vibe of football/class studies, and features a great performance from Patrick Dewaere, possibly the best french actor of his generation (he died young but outshone Depardieu at the time). Last bit of trivia: the other footballers are played by mostly AJ Auxerre players. You should check it out (it’s also Vikash Dhorasoo’s favourite film – see his Twitter profile quote).
Wow, thanks for that. Just looked up that actor, never heard of him before – committed suicide, what a shame.
Just thought of another one : Trois Zeros (“3 Nil”), released in 2000, when the French were still basking in the glory of the 1998 World Cup, hence its title. It’s a bit like Goal, but as a comedy (not too funny though) about corruption in football (yikes!) and this time the guy is Hungarian and instead of ending up in Newcastle, he goes to P.S.G, where he meets Ronaldinho, Okocha, Thuram and even Jean-Pierre Papin. Like “Coup de Tete”, the protagonist starts his career in jail, and I just realized it’s the second big mainstream french film to associate “football” and “prison” – that must mean something.
I’ll conclude rather poshly by quoting Albert Camus for no apparent reason: “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it on the pitch.”
And here’s the Ronnie cameo:
Excellent stuff sir, and speaking as the writer of Green Street, I have to say that I agree with every word of your opinion on that particular movie!!! Indeed, in my defence I walked away from the film long before the camera’s started rolling because sadly, the director seemed intent on incorporating pretty much every hooligan cliche she could find!
Thanks very much for your comment, Dougie – a rare thing for a blogger to get commented upon by someone involved in the film! I hope I wasn’t too harsh – I thought the real issues were, as you say, with the style and execution of the film, rather than the core story.
Plus, I couldn’t get over Charlie Hunnam’s accent then, and to this day I still can’t. Did you have any say in the casting process at all, or have anybody that you envisaged in the role?
I hope to be able to make it down to some of the Kicking & Screening festival; the Argentina Futbol Club film looks interesting, so may even see you there!
Well style and content are the preserve of the director so you can guess where I apportion much of the blame. One of the most irritating examples for me involved Elijah Woods clothes! If he’d spent a season involved with ‘the scene’ why was he still wearing the same gear at the end?
And sadly, no, I had no input on casting at all as by the time we’d got to that stage, I wasn’t really involved with the project after numerous fall-outs with the director. But I agree with you that Charlie Hunnam’s accent, that has to be one of the worst ever committed to screen and actually makes Dick Van Dyke’s performance as ‘Bert’ in Mary Poppins sound authentic. Oddly enough, on the few occassions I was on set it was a constant source of mirth to the crew yet the director couldn’t see the problem! And of course none of the actors had the balls to say anything……