Why There’s Never Been a Truly Great Football Movie (And Yes, We Do Mean Soccer)

Alistair Gray
Movies
Movies

It’s that time again. Summer is approaching, newspapers are being even more mean to footballers than usual, and the urge to inaccurately yell ‘IT’S COMING HOME’ is rising. It can only be the FIFA World Cup, which will beam 678 live matches each day directly onto every single screen in your home, and also onto your roof, whether you like it or not! Football. Football! FOOTBALL!

Worry not haters, because there is one place of refuge, where large screens in public places go unsullied by your Neymars and your Ronaldos. The place that football dare not venture: the cinema. Movies and football feel like binary choices; some people enjoy watching multi-millionaires play-acting for a couple of hours, and some people enjoy watching movies. But crucially few count themselves as genuine fans of both pastimes.

Accordingly, studios and movies flee from that dreaded month-long World Cup window in the summer, where football fever steamrolls everything. Why has there never been a properly thrilling, successful, genuine football movie to unite us all?

AMERICAN FOOTBALL 1, SOCCER 0

Vinnie Jones in Mean Machine.

At a basic level, the answer is simple: America by and large doesn’t really do soccer, therefore Hollywood doesn’t waste its money making movies about it, in the same way it doesn’t make many movies about rugby, jai alai or other international pursuits.

If, by some miracle, the sport were to gain popularity in the United States, then we might start to see some big name projects coming through the pipeline, but don’t hold your breath for a Peter Crouch biopic just yet (it’s surely the role Armie Hammer was born to play).

America could yet be tempted by the beautiful game: David Beckham is opening a Major League soccer franchise in Miami, and with his Deadpool promos and Guy Ritchie cameos he’s basically more movie star than footballer at this point.

Unfortunately that’s just about where America’s relationship ends with the sport right now: at the level of handsome celebrities. Let’s put it like this: when was the last time you saw Wayne Rooney on the red carpet of the MTV Movie Awards?

With Hollywood generally disinterested in football, that leaves the movie industries of the countries that actually play the damn thing to come up with the goods. Despite its plucky attitude and underdog status, the British film industry doesn’t have a great track record; we’re about as good at making footie movies as we are at winning footie matches.

Sure, there are films set in the world of football that make for interesting viewing; Bend It Like Beckham effectively uses the sport to tell a story of acceptance; movies like Green Street and The Football Factory have a loose relationship with the game itself but satisfy a certain faction of football fans; hell, even comedies like Mike Bassett and Mean Machine managed to wring a few laughs out of it.

But when it comes to movies about football — as in the drama of the game itself and the men and women who play it — every movie effort attempted to date has been fumbled like a speculative Gareth Bale potshot in a Cup Final.

MR. BEAN LIVING THE DREAM

Sean Bean in When Saturday Comes.

Proper football movies stick in the mind for all the wrong reasons. There’s famed Blades fan Sean Bean gurning his way through When Saturday Comes, a movie that surely only exists so Bean could pretend he played for Sheffield United. United Passions, a movie about FIFA financed by FIFA, enjoyed the worst theatrical opening of all time in U.S. box office history.

And who could forget the Goal! franchise? What do you mean, literally everyone? It’s the only football movie trilogy in existence! The first movie promised big name cameos (Beckham! Shearer! Titus Bramble!) mixed with authentic grass-roots action. It was… fine. The sequel, Goal II: Living The Dream, moved abroad, was more concerned with designer labels and girls than gegenpress, and the star quality of the cameos took a noticeable dive.

The third movie, Goal III: Taking On The World, went straight-to-DVD, ungainly sacked off the Mexican star of the first two movies and instead focused on his new English ‘mates,’ who took England to the pinnacle of World Cup glory i.e. a quarter-final defeat against Portugal. Even in our wildest fantasies we can’t catch a break.

You see, it’s impossible to try and add a layer of dramatic artifice over football, because football is dramatic enough already, and in a way that movies can never hope to replicate. Ask a Liverpool fan for the finer details of that night in Istanbul and watch them go misty-eyed in minutes; speak to anyone who saw Pelé in his prime and hear them talk of him like a leading man in the Cary Grant mold; grill an Arsenal fan after another heavy home defeat and you’ll see more emotion on show than any Oscar-winning weepie.

Hollywood cannot capture the twinkle-toed grace of an in-form Messi, the sudden heartbreak of Loris Karius costing his team the Cup, or the sheer grit of a wet and windy nil-nil draw away to Barnsley. Each football match plays host to a hundred different stories if you know where to look, therefore no singular movie can truly do the sport justice. As commentator Peter Drury is fond of saying: “YOU SIMPLY COULDN’T SCRIPT IT.”

THE MASTERS AT WORK

Maybe that’s the point: don’t even try to script it. There exist some outstanding football documentaries that portray football and its players in many lights. For the razzle dazzle of the sport and the circus that surrounds it, look no further than Once In A Lifetime, a superb doc detailing the attempts to bring big name talent to the New York Cosmos in the late 1970s.

For the love of the game and the triumph of the underdog, see Next Goal Wins, a 2014 doc about the worst footballing nation in the world.

And to anyone on the other side of that binary Movies/Football divide, put aside 91 minutes and watch Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, an enthralling documentary from 2006 that trains 17 synchronised cameras on one of the greatest players who ever lived as he performs his magic on the biggest stage of all. If you don’t break out in goosebumps when Zizou is sent off in the last minute, going from hero to villain as he provides his own Hollywood ending, then it’s off to The Football Factory for you, old chum.

Alistair Gray
Blogger, writer, general word-make-gooder. I will proofread your article even if you don't want me to.