Saturday, June 5, 2010

The "Great Hollywood Soccer Movie"

The Los Angeles Times just published a story under the headline Why Is there No Great Hollywood Soccer Movie?  The sport, says the article's author John Horn, has no Hoosiers, no Raging Bull.  He writes
When it comes to soccer, though, the sport's most memorable Hollywood movie probably has been Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Pelé's cheesy 1981 World War II drama "Victory" — only a marginally better treatment of the sport, in some detractors' view, than "Happy Gilmore" was for golf.
Horn ignores a lot of films and seems to accept that we all agree on the "Hollywood soccer movie" as something we want. First off - as far as Hollywood soccer movies go, Victory is totally worth watching. The cinematography is excellent, especially the game footage, and, well - it was directed by John Huston. It's not half bad. The comparison to Happy Gilmore is unfair. Happy Gilmore does not feature footage of one of the best athletes in any sport (Pelé) practicing his craft. Sure, it's cheesy - but so is Hoosiers. Few mainstream sports movies evade the cheesy (Lindsey Anderson's 1963 This Sporting Life does, and is worth watching - it stars Richard Harris as a troubled working class rugby player.)

Maybe by some standards soccer hasn't had a Hollywood treatment, but we do have Stephen Chow's 2004 Hong Kong comedy Shaolin Soccer. And we have the wonderful independent film Gracie (2007), a traditional sports narrative excepting that it is about a girl who wants to play soccer in the late 1970s, and has no option but to play on the boys team. Neither film is mentioned in this article - both are excellent and interesting. Looking for Eric and The Damn'd UTD are also great. But, no, they aren't "Hollywood".  Having just seen Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood, Prince of Persia and Sex and the City 2 - none of which are as good as Victory - I am not sure that is something we should lament. 

Most sports are hard to incorporate into a film. Boxing and martial arts are easier - convincing fight scenes can be choreographed and a fight makes for great cinema spectacle (which is why Shaolin Soccer works). Most sports films avoid showing extended play, and center the drama on the stories off the field (eg Hoosiers and Friday Night Lights).  If we care about a completed pass, or a botched free-throw, it's because we've been made to care about the character. In terms of watching sport (rather than a movie) such cinematic moments are never as satisfying or as complex as a game. You don't watch Jerry McGuire because you want to see a football game.
There are great soccer films out there which are not mentioned in this article. Take Jafar Panahi's Offside (2006) - about women masquerading as boys to watch a World Cup qualifier in Tehran. You don't see soccer in that film, but you see fandom - and because of this focus on passion and politics, it's one of the best soccer films ever made. (Jafar, arguably Iran's most important film-maker, was thankfully just released from prison.)

Horn mentions that Gurinder Chada, director of Bend it Like Beckham, struggled to get financing for her film - he implies that this was because the film is about soccer. Perhaps whatever difficulties she may have had finding backers had more to do with the fact that it is about women players in England (where the women's game was banned for 50 years) and because the original script had a lesbian love story in it. The actual soccer in Bend It Like Beckham is, by the way, kind of lame - but it doesn't matter. It was a huge hit.  Why doesn't Bend It Like Beckham count as soccer's Hoosiers? Because it is about women? (If Hollywood ignores soccer, it's because it ignores women and people of color. That's the story implied but not explored by this Los Angeles Times article.)

Many, like Ken Loach (director of Looking for Eric), assert that soccer demands an experimental eye - the sport is by definition hard to incorporate into traditional film narrative. I disagree - only because one can say this about a range of sports. That said, some of the best soccer films out there are experimental.

On July 6, Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno's art house film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait will be screened at UCLA's Billy Wilder theater.  It will be the city's first public screening of this celebrated film - a total cinema experience, in which seventeen cameras track Zidane across a Real Madrid match. Mogwai did the soundtrack, and it's gorgeous (best on the big screen). It is, perhaps, the sport's Raging Bull. And, no, it isn't a Hollywood film. But then again, filmed in black and white and with its disturbingly blank approach to violence and relatively modest box office, neither was Raging Bull.


  1. Not sure how much exposure it got outside the UK, but Gregory's Girl is an example of a British film with a soccer theme that had mainstream appeal.

  2. for some reason soccer movies are pretty new to sports-movies... but not to block busters (music videos and documentaries included) at all.
    The main question seems to be, if one of the few soccer movies will effect a larger community rather than just soccer fans - will the game transport ‘only’ the beauty of itself or if their is a story based around it.

    So why John Horn ask for a mainstream movie (Hollywood), as long as FIFA has its own ideas about what a soccer ‘movie’ is?
    You know those with all goals: FIFA WM 2006
    Others with the "big moments”: FIFA WM Highlights.
    One tells a tale: Germany. A Summer’s Tale. 2006
    At least least the highly official one. The Official Film of the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
    Each is a documentary, the last one directed by Michael Apted (James Bond - The world is not enough).

    Vigash Dhorasoo’s 'Substitute' (in the shade of Zidane) (2006)
    - a experimental movie about himself as substitute player which only was playing for 8 minutes in a five week tournament, is still not accepted from FIFA.
    (“(Vikash Dhorasoo, Fred Poulet, F 2006). The World Cup 2006 from the perspective of the French national player Vikash Dhorasoo and the writer and musician Fred Poulet. Both shoot with a super-8 camera: the one his everyday experiences as an increasingly frustrated substitute player for the Équipe tricolore; the other everything that happens during his travels throughout Germany and inside the stadium at all the French games. Melancholy instead of euphoria, loneliness instead of "one-for-all-and-all-for-one" rhetoric, a tragic hero instead of a glorious athlete – SUBSTITUTE is the other docu-mentary soccer film.” Arsenal Cinema) Shown at Arsenal Cinema Berlin, Germany - till June 9).

    What movies they will produce this year?

    Here are two good examples were soccer is mainstreaming something of its beauty, some peacefully.
    “Merry Christmas” can tell something more about soccer, based on a true life event in World War I, where the British and German soldiers stopped fighting to play a game of football on christmas eve - they met each other in No Man's Land to conflict peacefully.
    Though it’s ‘only’ listed as drama and war movie The Christmas Day truce was an inspiration for the England football team's official anthem for Euro 2004.

    O.k., it's not really a movie, but Sigur Ros award-winning music video 'Viorar Vel Til Loftarasa’ from 2001 shows a nice incorporation into traditional film narrative, sprawned a cinematic and controversial short movie.
    The band named the song after a quote sarcastically spoken by an Icelandic weatherman during the war in Kosovo: "í dag viðrar vel til loftárása" / "today is good weather for an airstrike / Set in 1950s Iceland, it features a kiss between two young boys.

  3. I also know of a brazilian film called Linha de Passe, which tells the story of 4 brothers, one of which is trying to succeed in pro soccer... Very good film.

  4. Just learned about another - "The Two Escobars" - playing at the LA Film Festival! Thank you for all the recommendations, and for the shift in perspective re the very idea of a "soccer movie"!

  5. There's a really great Chilean film from the 90s called 'Historias de Futbol' that I would highly recommend. Four short films, stories about the game and how it relates to the lives of people in Chile - an amateur league player offered a bribe to throw a match, a group of poor kids in a small desert town trying to get in to a league match, a student from Santiago traveling in the middle of nowhere and trying to watch Chile v West Germany at the World Cup.

    It's beautifully made and moving - and I got it from Netflix! Check it out if you've got time.

    (p.s. Jennifer, did you get my emails...?)

  6. Wow! Here’s my take on this – soccer is gaining some mainstream cache when the LA Times publishing not just this story wondering where is the great Hollywood movie? But also this one:,0,280644.story discussing soccer books.
    I mean, as you point out, plenty of bad Hollywood movies, and plenty about sports, how many years has “Hollywood” even been aware of soccer? When they make 100’s of movies about soccer, a couple of them will be great, just like boxing, baseball, puberty, whatever…

  7. I missed it at the Newport Beach Film Festival in April but Pelada (Brazilian slang for pickup game) sounds dreamy. It's a documentary that follows two Americans as they circle the globe in search of pickup games. From the film's website: "From prisoners in Bolivia to moonshine brewers in Kenya, from freestylers in China to women who play in hijab in Iran, Pelada is the story of the people who play."

  8. I would urge everyone to join this blog (and me) and just hope that Hollywood continues to stay out of soccer. Think about how the movie "Crossroads" treated the blues. Devil-worshipping black man is saved by white kid who battles other white kid in a virtuoso musical duel. White kids wins when he incorporates Bach. It could be this bad.

    To follow up on another post, earlier, I just read (in --Die Zeit--) that FIFA will allow the Iranian women's team to compete in caps that cover the hair but not the body. Covering your neck implies a "political or religious" statement. Crossing yourself is okay by FIFA, though.

    There are some hard decisions here. The Scottish FA banned crossing yourself because fan reaction threatened the match. There is no such threat posed by a team in a hijab.

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