Sport on TV: Absurd Arena, and the struggle of Iranian women to get inside

By Andrew Tong
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The Independent Culture

Michael Apted begins his film The Power of the Game (More 4, Tuesday) like this: "Our story is about the struggle to overcome. Memories of the World Cup may be fleeting and soon forgotten but the power of the game endures." Indeed it has been a struggle, but the memories of failure are not soon forgotten at all. Any Englishman should know that.

He was also the director of 'The World Is Not Enough' but given how long this film is (100 minutes), it seems the World Cup was more than enough. He also directed the new 'Chronicles of Narnia', which is about as realistic as England's chances of winning the cup.

The film deals with the build-up to Germany 2006, so it seems almost as dated as those images of '66. It kicks off with South Africa's bid, and the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, confiding: "It was not an easy task because it was a question of trust... and confidence." So that's why, outrageously, they gave it to Germany first. Winnie Mandela, Nelson's ex-wife, says: "It's not just a World Cup, it's the plight of a youth that lost their youthfulness." But for Fifa, it seems, it was just a World Cup.

Next up is the United States and the "struggle" to deal with the galling fact that any home game against Mexico has to be played in Boondock, North Carolina to avoid the reality that it feels more like an away fixture. Bruce Arena, the then USA coach, offers the absurd suggestion that qualifying for the World Cup "doesn't matter so much to England because they have the Premier League to fall back on". Come on, Bruce, no one in the US could care less if they don't qualify. But look what will happen if England lose to Team America next week: effigies strung up in the streets. It will be more like Iraq or Afghanistan.

By far the most interesting subject is the female Iranian sports journalist Mahin Gorji. She is the only woman allowed in the Azadi national stadium because football is considered too dangerous for women to watch. It's not quite clear if the state is worried about them seeing all those hairy legs or getting abused by the men, like the colleague who tells Mahin: "Get out! Go back to your kitchen."

Women are at last allowed in to watch the final qualifying game against Bahrain. It's the first time that Shahrzad Mazafar, the Iranian women's coach, has been to Azadi since she went as an eight-year-old dressed as a boy. Celebrations after the 1-0 win spill out into the streets, with the result that women are banned again. So here the struggle continues.

Apted also directed a great film about cricket, 'P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang', a tale of whimsy about one boy's obsession with leather, willow and girls in postwar suburbia. Here he shows a similarly light, meditative touch. But the film is too long, like a World Cup with England fans rioting on the news every night. By the end it's a struggle to overcome drowsiness.