Football films: After all the own goals, get ready for some wonder strikes

A new clutch of cerebral football films may just reignite a tired genre, says Geoffrey Macnab

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The Independent Culture

You might have thought they would have stopped trying by now. The "football" movie – the obvious honourable exceptions aside – has proved a dead-end for film-makers. For every half decent shot at the genre, from The Damned United and Bend It Like Beckham to The Miracle of Bern, there have been many, many misses. The Goal trilogy, Escape to Victory and When Saturday Comes are just some of the movies that failed to hit the target. However, at present, all around Europe and beyond, ambitious new football-themed films are being made.

What is startling is how different these films are. Yes, some producers still hope that old-fashioned Roy of the Rovers-style wish-fulfilment fantasies will win them huge audiences. Others continue to believe in the potency of Danny Dyer-style hooligan cinema of The Football Factory variety. However, there is evidence that the genre is growing up. The new batch of football films include documentaries about depression and suicide, stories about the experiences of African players in Europe, Ealing-style yarns about factory workers saving their livelihoods through football, and – of course – zombie comedies.

The most ambitious – and potentially the most contentious – of the new batch of football films is In the Crowd, an adaptation of Laurent Mauvignier's novel about events at the Heysel Stadium in 1985, when 39 fans died at the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus. This is being made through Paris-based company Anna Lena Films, but promises to be in a completely different register from Anna Lena's 2006 football film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. The Zidane movie was an experimental documentary celebrating a single football star (whose every movement during a single match was captured by multiple cameras.) By contrast, In the Crowd, which will be directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, is an epic European drama with multiple characters drawn from the different countries involved on that fateful night – Brits, Italians, Belgians and some French. Fans from all over Europe are en route to the match at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

"It's a strong European film," says Jean-Baptiste Babin, the co-founder of Backup Films (which is putting together the financing for In the Crowd.) "There are characters from different nationalities all converging at the same point." Babin and his business partner, David Atlan-Jackson, compare the movie to the Mexican drama Amores Perros, in which a single incident draws together different protagonists and storylines. The question now is whether Liverpool FC and Juventus FC will give their blessing to a project raking over such painful and uncomfortable memories.

Another football film with a very dark undertow is Francesco Del Grosso's 11 Metri (11 Metres), which premiered at the Rome Festival late last year. This is a documentary about Agostino Di Bartolomei, the Roma captain who committed suicide in May 1994. His death came 10 years to the day after Roma were defeated in a penalty shootout by Liverpool (complete with goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar performing his wobbly leg routine) in the European Cup Final.

At the time of his death, Di Bartolomei was suffering from clinical depression, had money troubles and was struggling to cope with his loss of status within Italian football.

"That is something really typical for all football players," Del Grosso suggests. "At the end of their careers, they don't know what to do with their lives. But the reasons for his suicide are still mysterious. His family is not aware why all this happened."

11 Metri is an example of a film-maker using football to tell a very dark story about a heroic figure who was far more vulnerable than any of his fans realised.

Similar themes will be explored in The Midfielder, the second feature from Silver Bear-winning Argentinian director Adrián Biniez. This drama is about the captain of a third division football team in Argentina who realises, at the age of 35, that his playing career is over. "The idea of making The Midfielder came to me two years ago during the last stages of post-production on my first feature film," the 37-year-old director recently recalled. "Simultaneously, a friend of mine, who was a football player, was playing the last games of his career. We are both the same age – I was at the very beginning of a whole new world and he was at the very end of a lifestyle he had been immersed in since he was a child."

These films look at what can happen to players when their careers end and they are suddenly cast adrift. They're "veterans" in their mid-30s, but all the experience they have gathered on the pitch is very little help for the challenges they face in their new "civilian" lives.

So far, so grim. However, some of the other football-themed movies currently being made are in a completely different register. For example, Goal of the Dead (produced through Capture the Flag Films) is a zombie comedy about a big club travelling to Eastern Europe to play a small team in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile, Olivier Dahan (best known for the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose) has now made The Dream Team (aka Les Seigneurs), an Ealing-style comedy (or French equivalent thereof) about ex-football stars who form a team to help the local fishermen in Brittany to save their jobs.

Cult comedian Benoît Poelvoorde is currently starring in Akwaba, a culture-clash comedy that touches on provocative subject matter – the way that European teams sometimes exploit African talent. The film, directed by Benoît Mariage, is about a manager who brings a young African prodigy to Belgium.

Opening shortly in the UK is Danny Donnelly's Payback Season, a London-set tale about a rising Premiership football star Jerome (Adam Deacon) who can't shake off the attentions of his old gang-member friends from the estate where he grew up. The contrast between Jerome's life and that of his old friends is glaring. At least as far as Donnelly's film is concerned, top footballers live in a gilded world of sports cars, luxury flats and champagne binges at nightclubs.

The conspiring in Renaissance Italy under the Medicis and Borgias was nothing to that at Loftus Road under Flavio Briatore if The Four Year Plan, the recent doc about QPR, is taken as the measure.

There are so many football-themed films currently being made that, by the law of averages, at least one of two will turn out OK. In the process, they should finally rehabilitate a form of film-making that, for so long, has been little more than a self-indulgent joke.

Hot Shots: 4 top football films...

Johan Cruyff: At a Given Moment

An inspiring doc about how the Dutch maestro brought joy to Catalonia in the Franco era by helping Barcelona to give Real Madrid a bloody nose.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

The great Thorold Dickinson directed this murder-mystery, which is both effective in its own right as a thriller and a nostalgia-steeped curiosity piece.

Hero: The Bobby Moore Story

Absurdly hagiographic in parts, Tony Palmer's very moving film nonetheless captures the dignity, class and courage of England's World Cup winning captain.

Substitute

A glimpse into the existential angst of a French player (Vikash Dhorasoo) who falls foul of his team manager and spends almost an entire World Cup on the sidelines, filming with an 8mm camera.

...and 4 that miss the target

Goal!

The 'Goal!' trilogy was more about merchandising than storytelling. The filmic equivalent of three lots of 90 minutes spent locked up inside a branch of Sports Direct.

Duck Flight

This Iranian movie by Ali Shah-Hatami may have an allegorical undertow about life under the Mullahs and the plight of wounded ducks, but the kids' football scenes are shockingly poor.

All Stars

The football movie as a rites of passage yarn... Jean Van De Velde's story about a group of twentysomething adults who've played for the same team since they were kids is cheesy in the extreme.

Purely Belter

Not even a cameo from Alan Shearer saves this whimsical yarn about teenagers desperate to get hold of season tickets for Newcastle United FC.

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