Football movies (review of Goal! in SAU blog, September 2005)

Continuing my ressurection of my sport-themed writing, here is another piece from the Social Affairs Unit Blog.  Ostensibly a review of Goal! this is really a mini-essay on football movies – I had written a similarly themed piece for the UCD FC matchday programme which I drew on rather heavily. I don’t think I ever really asked “will there e a decent British football film?” as per the subtitle. The Goal! series lumbered on in to the planned trilogy, and the football movie seems now to be mainly a a documentary based entity.


Directed by Danny Cannon
certificate 12A, 2005


The sports movie does not have a distinguished pedigree. And within the genre, the soccer movie has an even less distinguished one. Goal! is the latest in many attempts to reverse this situation – the first of a mooted trilogy which is supposed to show a gifted Mexican teenager’s progress from barrio to Newcastle to Real Madrid to World Cup.

Goal! has been touted as yet another step in that moral crusade, Converting America to Soccer. How odd it is that many who denounce globalisation in its other manifestations see America’s failure to take soccer to its bosom without reserve as yet more evidence of the country’s inferiority. Borges wrote once of how the street games and traditions of Buenos Aires were swept away by the march of soccer. I use “soccer” deliberately – again, the American use of “soccer” is often, ignorantly, held up as evidence of American insularity. Yet in the USA, in Australia, in Ireland indeed, “football” can and often does mean an entirely different sport. What exactly is wrong with this, and why should the Americans meekly subject to the march of soccer?

Soccer’s relative non-existence in the USA has much to do with its low cinematic profile. Britain has given us the distinctly mixed bag ofBend it Like Beckham, Mean Machine and Mike Basset England Manager. And of course the hardy Christmas favourite Escape to Victory, with Pele, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles and a host of Ipswich players alongside Sly Stallone and Michael Caine – all eye-deep in corny lines and unlikely plot twists.

There have been some more interesting football (oh alright, I give in) related films. 1940’s The Arsenal Stadium Mystery featuresHighbury and footage of the Arsenal first team in its whodunit plot. It also features footage from an Arsenal-Brentford game which turned out to be Arsenal’s last home game before the outbreak of World War II. It sometimes turns up on daytime television. Aside from the archival interest of the footage, there is an interesting glimpse of pre-War morality – the caretaker of a building one of the footballers lives in is scandalised when it seems that a woman stayed there overnight.

Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) is a Wim Wenders film whose plot, according to the Internet Movie Database, is as follows:

A goalkeeper, Josef Bloch, is ejected during a game for foul play. He leaves the field and goes to spend the night with a cinema cashier. He then proceeds to strangle her the morning after.

There is a scene in which Bloch and another character discuss penalties while watching TV, but overall the film is more about man’s alienation in the modern world etc. than a “football movie”.

There’s also the 1995 Italian flick L’Estate di Bobby Charlton which I have not seen, but the plot summary as follows:

After the marriage between a woman from Italy’s north and a schoolteacher from Italy’s south fails due to deep-seated differences in culture and tradition, the husband forcibly kidnaps his two young sons from the home of his estranged wife’s parents and sets out on the road with them in a VW Beetle.

What has any of that to do with Bobby Charlton? Who knows?

Perhaps the most interesting football movie of recent years – for reasons not really related to football – was Sonke Wortmann’s Das Wunder von Bern (The Miracle of Berne), about West Germany’s 1954 World Cup triumph. Parallel to the story of the actual victory, Wortmann focuses on a football-besotted Essen boy whose hero worship of footballers is strongly disapproved of by his father, who returns from a Soviet P.O.W. camp in the early stages of the film. Naturally the West German victory leads to a touching reconciliation between father and son. Gerhard Schroeder apparently wept when he watched the movie, which was widely described as marking another stage in Germany’s “coming to terms with its past” – that seemingly eternal process, which the film Untergang was also supposedly part of. Stripped of the freight of cultural commentary,Das Wunder von Bern was a rather sweet drama, distinguished by more convincing football action than is the norm. Wortmann – himself a former professional – used real footballers to enact the action, and it shows.

And which highlights one of the perennial problems of the sports movie. Given the sheer extent of television coverage, it is very hard to convincingly fake sports action. When you can see Michael Jordan or Roger Federer performing astonishing acts of skill and dexterity, without any jump cuts or freeze frames to heighten the effect, it comes across as hopelessly phoney when films feature such technical tricks.

Despite being made with the co-operation of Newcastle United Football Club, and featuring such players as Alan Shearer, Goal!never rises to such a level of verisimilitude. It is a worthy, earnest and really rather dull film. It is hard to dislike outright, although I imagine only the most football-besotted pre-adolescents will really take to it.

Goal! begins promisingly. We see a child suddenly ordered to leave his room by his father. A family is fleeing across the border to the United States. The early scenes, set ten years later, in Los Angeles, capture the aspirational spirit of Santiago Munez (Nuno Becker), who helps his father in his gardening business by day, busboys in a Chinese restaurant by night, and whenever he can plays football for a park league. One day a visiting former Newcastle player, turned failed scout turned garage owner, played by Stephen Dillane, happens to see Santiago indulging in his repertoire of tricks. Thus the wheels of the defiantly predictable plot are set in motion.

After the initial promise of the short, lively scenes that begin the film, cliché follows cliché. Santiago’s father disapproves of his dream to play for Newcastle United (given some of the stories which the club have featured in in recent years, one must have some sympathy). As night follows day, some form of reconciliation will follow. When we see Santiago surreptitiously use an inhaler before his first Newcastle trial, we know that the inhaler will feature in some suspicious plot development. When a pretty nurse administers Santiago’s initial physical, we know that romance will ensue.

Almost all the characters – from Anna Friel’s club nurse, to Santiago’s Catholic matriarch of a grandmother, to Dillane’s scout – are ciphers. Only two are of any interest. Allessandro Nivola’s Gavin Byrne, every tabloid editor’s dream of a modern footballer – greedy, womanising, absurdly coiffeured – and yet capable of unexpected kindness, at least has the promise of a more fully realised portrait of a real, albeit flawed, human being. And Erik Dornhelm (the distinguished Romanian actor Marcel Iures), the German Newcastle manager reminiscent of Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, combines obvious steeliness with a not entirely unsympathetic approach to his young charges.

Goal! is a rather sweet, inoffensive drama about Following Your Dream and Being True To Yourself. Newcastle is made to look rather glamorous, and there are some pretty shots of Santiago running by the sea. Oasis churn along on the soundtrack – how stodgy and heavy their music seems now, and how absurd that ten years ago pundits were seriously comparing them to the Beatles.

Those who may not hate football, but do hate the arrogant homogenising impulse that drives the more evangelical devotees of the game, have nothing to fear from Goal! That this mediocre film – for which “sturdy” is the most generous adjective I can imagine – is the basis of a trilogy says much about the faith and gullibility of those supposedly hard-headed movie moguls. America can sleep easy in its love for its own “football”.

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