Lesser-known flops include Ladybugs (1992), a (very American) film about a girls' team which Empire described as `a five-star no-no'

Olivia Blair ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
Over the years, football and film have proved about as compatible as Peter Schmeichel and Ian Wright and as watchable as last year's FA Cup final. The comical Escape to Victory springs immediately to mind as a film in which the acting debuts of Bobby Moore, John Wark, Mike Summerbee, Russell Osman, Pele, Kazimierz Deyna and Ossie Ardiles were singularly less successful than their footballing ones.

Far worse, however, were Hotshot (1987), which exists as living proof that even Pele can be dull; Yesterday's Hero (1979), which starred Ian McShane and Adam Faith and was written by Jackie Collins; Life Goes On the Same (1969), in which Julio Iglesias took 90 minutes to confirm he was better at singing than acting or playing football - which gives you an idea of how bad the film was; and When Saturday Comes (1996), in which the Sean Bean- Emily Lloyd act was as ill-fated as the liaison between Alan Sugar and Terry Venables.

Lesser-known flops include Ladybugs (1992), a (very American) film about a girls' soccer team which Empire described as "a five-star no-no", and Football Crazy (1974) in which Joan Collins' attempts to seduce a pompous Italian referee deserved an automatic red card.

Notable exceptions include Gregory's Girl (1980), The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) and existentialist movie The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty (1971), which was only credible because it contained so little football action and involved a narrative which transcended football. And that, according to Nick Hornby, whose film version of his best- selling novel Fever Pitch opens in April, is the key. "The problem with previous football films is that producers have had to choose between actors who can't play football and footballers who can't act," Hornby says. The difference with Fever Pitch, he maintains, is that "it's about fans, about people, rather than what happens on the pitch".

Hornby has become something of an anti-hero recently - football snobs like to claim that his book was merely a well-timed catalyst for the upturn in football's fortunes at a time when the game was already rising, albeit gingerly, from the ashes of Heysel and Hillsborough - but the truth is that Fever Pitch was a publishing phenomenon: a book that laid the foundations for a new genre of football writing at the same time as communicating the fundamental appeal of the game to an audience far beyond the average football fan.

And as long as you don't make the mistake of expecting Fever Pitch the film to be a faithful representation of Fever Pitch the book, then you will not be disappointed.

The film is essentially about a relationship between Paul Ashworth (played by Colin Firth) and Sarah Hughes (Ruth Gemmell), in which she struggles to come to terms with his obsession - which just happens to be football. So while the book is autobiographical, the film is a romantic comedy based on characters "suggested" by Hornby's life; it does not trace Arsenal's fortunes in the detail which made the book so compelling. It is, the producers claim, "no more about football than Hoop Dreams is about basketball. It describes how being a football fan can give you a sense of belonging, of community, the opportunity to experience moments of rare excitement which can lift you above ordinary life".

Firth puts it more simply: "It isn't a film you can go and chant to. The two lead characters are very recognisable human beings who find themselves in familiar circumstances, so it's a film which will appeal to fans, but also non-football fans."

That said, football fans should identify far more easily with Paul and his obsession than non-football fans will with Sarah, simply because the script - four years in the planning and filmed at diverse London locations, including the terraces at Craven Cottage, an Indian restaurant in Brick Lane, a pub in Stoke Newington and Camden Passage in an attempt to recreate the right period - is laced with the kind of black humour that is so unique to football.

The way in which, say, Paul tries to coach his PE class on the "subtle nuances" of Arsenal's offside trap which inevitably involves much standing around in straight lines with arms raised; in which he compares Sarah to George Graham for her dour pragmatism.

But if a Spurs fan (not me) can admit to shedding a tear at the moment Michael Thomas seals The Greatest Moment Ever (the chapter in the book which becomes the film's climax) by scoring Arsenal's Championship-winning goal at Anfield in May 1989, then this promises to have a bigger impact on film-goers than Dennis Bergkamp has had in N5.

It did on Firth. "Arsenal has begun to have a disturbing influence on me," he admits. "I was watching a documentary recently and thought: `Oh, they're wearing Arsenal colours', only to realise it was filmed at Christmas and they were Santa Claus outfits! And I've woken up with football chants in my head."

No prizes for guessing which one...