Football and film prove no match
Sat May 13, 8:15 PM ET
PARIS (AFP) - It would seem at first glance a match made in heaven. Ninety minutes of nail-biting drama, 22 hunky guys torn between joy and despair, and a little round ball. Perfect ingredients for a great movie.
But, apart from a few worthy and entertaining attempts, even the most die-hard football fans agree with cinema critics, that footie movies are definitely worth giving a miss.
"Most football films are clunkingly unoriginal," agreed Professor Jeffrey Richards, a lecturer on the history of film at Lancaster University in northwestern England.
"I think it's partly because they tend to recycle a set of cliches, of stars who make a comeback and come through in the end to score the winning goal.
"Plus you have all the heroes and villains and drama you need in one match and trying to turn it into a screen drama inevitably cheapens the game," said the life-long Aston Villa fan.
Part of the difficulty lies in ensuring the football sequences remain authentic for millions of exacting fans, without skimping on the film's plot and pace.
Among Richards' favourites is "The Arsenal Stadium Mystery" starring Leslie Banks and Ian McLean, a 1939 murder thriller set against the background of the Highbury stadium, using real action footage between Arsenal and Brentford Town.
Thus the most successful football movies tend to be those in which the game is not the central focus.
British director Gurinder Chada's 2002 hit romantic comedy "Bend it Like Beckham" hit the big-time with its tale of a football-obsessed British-Asian girl bending the rules to follow her dream, even managing to capture American hearts.
But Chada herself saw the film as more about a girl caught between tradition and family, and although there is a big match at the end it is almost secondary to the story of shifting, complex family dynamics.
"Bend It" is reminiscent of another quirky British film, the 1981 "Gregory's Girl", also featuring the star player of a girls' football team who is this time the object of an awkward adolescent's ardent admiration.
John Huston's 1981 "Escape to Victory" about an attempted escape by Allied prisoners of war during a football match in Nazi-occupied Paris, which loosely based on a true story, took a different tack.
The ball skills of Brazilian striker Pele, Argentina's Osvaldo Ardiles and England's Booby Moore were drafted in alongside a host of professional footballers, many from Ipswich Town, backed by actors Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine, to lend the film authenticity.
Some footballers such as French ex-Manchester United player Eric Cantona and the former hardman of British football Vinny Jones have gone on to successful film careers.
But in the main, most agree footballers can't act and actors can't play football.
And although "Escape to Victory" mainly fails to score because it lacks plausibility, as Richards says: "Escape to Victory is so outrageous as to be hugely entertaining."
One fan, Steven Nickells, has even set up a website (www.escapetovictory.spodrum.co.uk) dedicated to the "greatest football film ever made" to persuade Warner Brothers to release the film on DVD, which they did last year.
"I'm not fanatical about the film, but it seems to unite people as much as football does, and I've received some really nice emails from people around the world saying how the film changed their lives in some way for the better," he told AFP in an email.
A Newcastle supporter, Nickells admitted it "may be not the best film ever released, but is certainly not the worst ... Try asking a football fan to watch the overhead Pele goal without smiling, they can't do it."
Many other football films however seem destined to wilt on the sidelines.
How many remember Colin Firth, so dashing as Mr Darcy in the BBC series of "Pride and Prejudice" as the hapless Arsenal fan in the 1997 screen adapation of Nick Hornby's hugely successful novel "Fever Pitch"?
Or the 2000 film "Best" starring a bewigged John Lynch as George Best with real-life footage blended with recreated scenes?
Other football films consigned to history are the 1979 "Yesterday's Hero" in which an alcoholic ex-footballer vows to make a comeback and the 1996 "When Saturday Comes" starring Sean Bean as a hard-drinking brewery worker who dreams of trying out for Sheffield United.
Part of the problem could be that Hollywood has never given football -- or soccer as the Americans call it -- the big screen treatment.
Until now that is. Last year saw the release of "Goal!", the first part of a trilogy directed by Arsenal fan and "Judge Dredd" director Danny Cannon, which won backing from world football's ruling body FIFA.
"Goal!" tells the story of Santiago Munez, played by Kuno Becker, a Mexican immigrant in Los Angeles who dreams of playing for Newcastle United.
FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, who agreed to FIFA providing logistical and technical support, said: "Football's message is one of fair play. One that transcends all cultural differences and social classes.
"It is the most inclusive game in the world and it deserves to be portrayed as what it is: a sport that allows the underprivileged to enjoy success."
But several months after its September 2005 release, it would seem the movie, like so many other football films, has proved little more than just another own goal.