Goals On Film

With Hollywood's latest attempt to capture the magic of football released this weekend, Nick Harris investigates the game's long and often flawed relationship with the silver screen
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"To be honest, I didn't like Escape much when it came out," Ardiles said this week, recalling a month on location in Hungary in 1981 with Bobby Moore, Pele, Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and what seemed like half of Ipswich Town.

"I had a great time making it, and it's grown on me in the years since we made it. But I expected the depiction of the football in the final thing to be more authentic, more real. Perhaps football lends itself better to documentary, because it allows the true drama of our game to be shown via real footage."

The debate about authenticity in the genre is set to be reignited with the general release this weekend of Goal!, the first part of a Hollywood trilogy that tells of the fictional journey of a young Latino from West Coast America to global stardom via Newcastle United (in part one), Real Madrid (part two) and the 2006 World Cup (part three).

Early reviews have been mixed, with some critics saying it feels, at times, like an extended promo for adidas, one of the corporate partners in the venture. Jonathan Ross gave it a thumbs-up on Film 2005 this week, though, and the scriptwriting of Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement (Auf Wiedersehen Pet, The Likely Lads and Porridge) gives it more pep than an average footie flick.

But few, if any, football films would make it into a critic's sporting top 10, while any number of boxing and baseball films might make the grade, with even athletics and rugby league having a shout.

Sir Alan Parker, the multiple Oscar-winning director - and ardent Arsenal fan - says convincing deception is the key problem with football films. "Football is notoriously difficult to cheat on film because of the accepted convention of how the sport is covered - basically, quite crudely, from a camera in the stands on a wide angle lens, simultaneously covering the play of five to 10 players at a time," he said. "This is impossibly difficult to choreograph for film. Film illusion - putting the actors in the game - requires editing. If for instance Bergkamp backheels to Pires, who slips the ball to Henry, you want to see all three players in one fluid move.

"If you suddenly cut to Henry's boot and then his face and then cut to the keeper missing the ball and then cut to close-up as the ball hits the back of the net, it will look phoney because football isn't covered this way.

"Boxing is the sport best seen on film because it relies on multiple cameras. Raging Bull and Rocky, for instance, cheat by having lots of cuts and exaggerated effects, but it doesn't look too different to a televised fight. Similarly with baseball: the pitcher pitches the ball. You cut to the batter, the actor swings with the sound of the ball being hit - you don't even have to see the ball - and then you cut to the crowd groping for the ball and you have the illusion of a home run. Same with American football. Also, cynically, the reason there have been so few football movies is because Americans don't like football and they, in the main, determine which films get made."

To an extent this final reason may have been changed by the Stateside success of Bend It Like Beckham, which has prompted a flurry of football films, seven of which have been released or gone into production this year. Already out are Kicking and Screaming, a US comedy about a soccer dad, Green Street, which sees Elijah Wood embroiled in hooliganism, and The Game of Their Lives, the story of the US team which beat England in 1950.

Meanwhile, Spike Lee is working on The Goal, about a Brazilian who makes it big; Walter Salles (the director of The Motorcycle Diaries) is filming Linha do Pase, about four brothers seeking escape from social apartheid in São Paulo via football; and Michael Apted (director of a Bond movie - The World Is Not Enough - and the 7-Up documentary series) is planning a feature about football and globalisation. Kenneth Branagh had hoped to be working on a project for the German FA, but funding issues have put that on indefinite hold.

One school of thought says that football's inherent drama, not least in big matches concluding with heroic comebacks or penalty shoot-outs, undermines any attempt to recreate or outdo that drama for television or the cinema.

"The dramatic problem is that you're constantly outdone by the real thing," says Stan Hey, a scriptwriter whose credits include The Manageress, a TV series from the late 1980s exploring women's place in football, and All in the Game, a drama based on a Gary Lineker book about an Englishman moving to Spain.

"Michael Thomas's goal for Arsenal against Liverpool [to snatch the title in the dying seconds of the 1988-89 season], or Liverpool's Champions' League win this year, are much more dramatic than anything you could ever write," Hey added.

Branagh, a Spurs fan, endorses that view completely, and tells a marvellous story about how he watched Manchester United's last-gasp 1999 European Cup win with the actor Brian Blessed and five dogs. "Fuck me, it's Sheringham, you couldn't have written it," Branagh recalls of United's equaliser. "And Blessed is so excited he's practically pissed himself. So he's had to go to the loo, and he's in the loo when suddenly we're going, 'Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!' He missed the second goal!

"The dogs are fucking flinging themselves out the fucking window cos they're thinking, 'God, somebody's being killed'. And this ... this is drama."

The makers of Goal! argue that it has more authenticity than other football films "because it's been made by football people, with football's backing".

The words are those of Andy Ansah, once a striker for Southend, Brentford and Brighton, among others, who is the football consultant and choreographer for the project. "I know what you're saying," he said, speaking from Madrid, where work is under way on part two, when it was suggested that many football films have been laughable in their failure to convey a sense of realism. "I knew when I saw When Saturday Comes in 1996 that there had to be a better way to make football work on screen."

When Saturday Comes featured Sean Bean on a meteoric rise from non-league nobody to Sheffield United hero. "The footage often made no sense," Ansah said. "The action was unconvincing. There were gaps in sequences. And when you see a penalty it's so obvious that it's been shot at half-time during a completely different match."

Ansah does not pull his punches either aboutMike Bassett, England Manager, on which he himself worked. "I think it's entertaining but it was limited in its approach."

So what makes Goal! different? "For a start, total access. We've had Fifa, adidas, Newcastle United and the Premier League all supporting us. We've got real stars like Zidane, Beckham, Raul. In our action sequences our characters are playing with Alan Shearer, passing him the ball, getting it back, helping Patrick Kluivert score. You need familiarity."

As far as shot selection is concerned, Ansah agrees with Alan Parker on how to make action sequences authentic. "We've been creative with our shots," he says. "I'm a big believer in full-frame photography, I choreograph moves that prove this is real, from one end of the pitch to the other, with a real crowd at a real match. All too often football action sequences in films concentrate on close-ups of one player. It's obvious that they're doing that because there's nothing real beyond that tight shot."

He adds that the movie's director, Danny Cannon, is "an Arsenal nut", who "wants it to be true to the game. He was training with us three times a week from the moment he arrived."

A lot of football films simply steer clear of making the football central. Bend It Like Beckham did not actually feature Beckham and was concerned with issues of culture and identity. Fever Pitch was as much about obsession and a personal journey. The 2005 US remake simply substituted baseball's Boston Red Sox for Arsenal.

And while some of the most lauded foreign football films, notably Wim Wenders' 1972 cult German hit The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty and the more recent The Miracle Of Berne from the same country, have pivoted on football, their core stories are more about a troubled soul and coping with post-war divisions than about stopping shots and scoring goals.

Arguably, the best football movies are only tangentially about football itself, such as The Cup, based on the true story of a group of Tibetan monks wanting a TV to watch the 1998 World Cup. It was marketed with the slogan: "Buddhism is their philosophy. Football is their religion."

And some of the biggest turkeys have been when the action is central, but plain daft. Witness Soccer Dog: The Movie (1999), "a heart-warming comedy about the relationship between the new kid in town and a soccer-playing dog", and its sequel, Soccer Dog: European Cup, which went straight to DVD and video last year. The trailer boasted that the hero mutt "fetches like Beckham".

Football films with great stories, believable characters and authentic action are rarer then sell-outs at Ewood Park. Whether the latest batch can make a difference, time will tell, but it is rumoured that Pele is even trying to drum up interest in a sequel to Escape to Victory. Now there's a story of optimism, courage and chutzpah.

Box office hits ... and misses

* GREGORY'S GIRL (1981)

Glorious victory. Scottish naturalism and adolescent delusion collide in an amiable but slight coming-of-age comedy.

* ESCAPE TO VICTORY (1981)

So bad it's good. Lack of tactical acumen from Pele, Ardiles and their gang of PoWs, but they still manage to beat the Boche.

* BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM (2002) (Pictures 5 & 6)

Unexpected triumph. Football and cultural values compete in a humorous, romantic tale.

*WHEN SATURDAY COMES (1996) (Pictures 7 & 8)

Crushing defeat. Leaden script and on-field action in cliché- ridden, 'oop North' anti-drama.

* MIKE BASSETT ENGLAND MANAGER (2001)

Home thrashing. Lower league everyman saves England. Little on-field action; even less acting.

* MEAN MACHINE (2001)

Ignominious defeat. Vinnie Jones is, remarkably, the highlight of this grim prison movie.

* FEVER PITCH (1996)

Away win. Nick Hornby's tale of his Arsenal obsession has its moments but fails to match the ground-breaking book

* DAS WUNDER VON BERN (THE MIRACLE OF BERNE, 2003) (Picture 6)

Scoreless draw. Lachrymose saga using West German football as an analogy for post-war redemption.

* GOAL! (2005) (Pictures 7 & 8)

Opens this weekend, but 'a Tyneside fog of clichés', says Anthony Quinn of The Independent .

Nick Clarke

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