Soccer on the silver screen: Cinema is up for the World Cup

Film-makers are turning to football to avoid a box-office kicking this summer

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The Independent Culture

A Palestinian returns to a refugee camp in Lebanon hoping to recapture childhood memories. A group of Argentinian girls battles sexism by playing a man’s game. A father and son watch a video of dad at work. An American takes a high-profile job in Egypt during the Arab spring. A transgender athlete breaks down sexual barriers. Police crack down on criminal gangs in Brazil’s favelas. The common factor? Football. 

Four years ago UK cinema saw its lowest attendances for years during the South African football carnival and now it seems that film-makers have decided if you can’t keep the audience from football, then take the football to the audience. The result is the most eclectic bunch of football movies to ever hit UK cinemas.

“We didn’t really want this to be a film about football,” says Steve Jamison, co-director of Next Goal Wins, the recently released documentary about the attempts of American Samoa to qualify for Brazil 2014. In 2001 the American Samoan team suffered the heaviest defeat in World Cup history losing a qualification game against Australia 31-0. But it’s the human stories that score, most notably the tale of international footballer Jaiyah Saelua, who was born a man but lives as a woman and identifies herself as belonging to the fa’afafine, a third gender group that’s part of the culture in American Samoa. Then there’s Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, who uses the resolve of overcoming the death of his teenager daughter to inspire footballers who were on a 17-year losing streak.

Hackney resident Mahdi Fleifel remembers watching the 1994 World Cup in the refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh in southern Lebanon. It was one of the best and most colourful experiences of his life. “I honestly thought that Lebanon was hosting an international event,” Fleifel recalls about the stateless people. “There were all these flags on cars and people getting behind teams. I think that the people have this need to feel belonging and so during the World Cup the factions within the camp would pick a country to support in the World Cup and they would become their team.”

In 2010 Fleifel went back to the camp to film how the World Cup affected the refugees living there. “But after a couple of weeks in the camp filming, I realised that the whole World Cup thing wasn’t working and the film, A World Not Ours, morphed into another story.” Featuring a voice-over from the director himself that matches the funniest observations from TV series The Wonder Years, A World Not Ours has won so many awards at film festivals that Ryan Giggs’s trophy cabinet seems bare in comparison.

With all these football films being made it’s no surprise that a number of film festivals dedicated to movies depicting the sport have kicked off. The newest is the Amnesty football film festival. The festival will kick off with Looking for Rio, a documentary presented by former Manchester United star Eric Cantona. The French enigma goes to Brazil and the documentary recounts the history of Brazilian football.

The highlight of the Amnesty festival is Superjews, a film about the supporters of Ajax, told from the perspective of the film’s female director Nirit Peled. The director left Israel for Holland because she was disillusioned with the nationalism she saw in her homeland. She was shocked to discover that supporters of Ajax Amsterdam called themselves Superjews and used symbols of the Israeli state, despite not being religious at all. The film is particular pertinent to British audiences as Tottenham fans have been banned from making similar chants this year.

The Amnesty festival will also show the world premiere of American Pharaoh, directed by Hossam Abdoul-Magd, which is one of two films currently focusing on the appointment of American Bob Bradley as coach of Egypt, and the challenges he faced when, soon after his appointment, the protests at Tahrir Square began. The other film, We Must Go by Copper Pot Pictures, recently aired at the football orientated Kicking and Screening festival in New York City.

Of course there would never be a season of football movies without the British contributing with what was known in the 1980s as the “English disease”. There’s a football-hooligan movie coming out in time for the World Cup, and yes Danny Dyer is in it, allbeit briefly. It seems that the hooligan genre is now ripe for a spoof and, with the timing of a David Beckham cross, Nick Nevern and his cohorts are happy to oblige with The Hooligan Factory.

The Cannes film festival also had a dose of football fever. There was a massive billboard on the Croisette proclaiming The Juventus Story. Other films about real-life football teams kicking off include Barca by Paul Greengrass and The Class of 92 about the Manchester United youth players who dominated the Premier League. Also announced at Cannes was United Passions, a film about the birth of the World Cup starring Tim Roth as Sepp Blatter and Gérard Depardieu as Jules Rimet. In the competition section there was a brilliant football scene in African entry Timbuktu, in which kids play the beautiful game with an imaginary football.

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The Class of 92: (L-R) Paul Scholes, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Gary Neville

Also on the team sheet is a biopic about the early years of Pele. Originally due out before the World Cup, production delays have seemingly matched the delays in building the stadia in Brazil. Pele did though star in one of the greatest football movies of all the time, Escape to Victory, the much loved but completely preposterous Second World War tale in which Sylvester Stallone plays a goalkeeper.

There are two new films that would be my dream World Cup Final of football movies,The Second Game by Romanian Corneliu Porumboiu and The Referee by Italian Paulo Zucco. What’s remarkable about The Second Game is that the action shown on screen is a poor-quality videotape of a boring scoreless draw between Romanian rivals Steaua and Dynamo Bucharest. The first striking element is that the match is played in a foot of snow, conditions that would have seen the game postponed in the modern era. The weather is so bad that even the left-foot of Gheorghe Hagi, “the Maradona of the Carpathians” was rendered ineffective. The game was also officiated by the director’s dad and it’s the illuminating commentary of the two men that is a treat. The Referee brilliantly mixes opera, religion and football to create an analogy of the refereeing crisis and scandals that engulfed Italian football and saw many teams deducted points and Juventus demoted.

Unsurprisingly there are a number of football shorts being put on show. Pepsi have released visual album Beats of the Beautiful Game featuring segments directed by Spike Lee and Diego Luna, while Gaspar Noe and Vincent Gallo have signed on to make films for Short Plays, a series of three-to-five-minute largely dialogue-free football inspired tales that are to be released as an omnibus film.

The Amnesty UK Football Film Festival takes place 6-8 June. ‘The Second Game’ plays at the East End Film Festival on 19 June and ‘The Hooligan Factory’ is out on 13 June

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