As a global sport football is integral to so many cultures around the world and naturally, we see it represented in many different art forms, including film. In this episode we take a look at some of the best (and worst) football films and explore the ways in which the beautiful game is represented on screen.
James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.
As a global sport, football is integral to so many cultures around the world and naturally, we see it represented in many different art forms, including film.
Greg: I think the first sort of recognised football film is the 1939 film, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, which is sort of like a murder mystery, centred around Arsenal’s old Highbury Stadium in a fictional game. They were playing against a team called the Trojans.
And one of the players from the Trojans sort of drops dead during the match and it breaks out into like a big detective investigation and they’re trying to figure out why this player died.
It’s still a very highly regarded film, of that era anyway.
James: This is Greg Evans.
Greg: Hello, my name is Greg Evans. I’m a journalist who covers a variety of subjects, including film, culture and the odd bit of football as well.
So that is regarded as maybe one of the first football films. And then sort of after that it’s sort of come in and out of fashion quite consistently, really. It did hit a real peak in the 1980s with the release of Escape to Victory.
James: Released in 1981 and known simply as Victory in North America, the film tells the story of World War II POWs who agree to play an exhibition match against a German team. Learning that the match is a German propaganda stunt, they devise a plan to escape from the stadium.
Adam: It’s held up to be one of the better football films, despite how absurd the whole scenario is. You know, it claims to be loosely based on a real life game. I don’t think the original was quite as glamourous as the film version turned out to be.
James: That’s football writer and author, Adam Hurrey.
Starring Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone and featuring big name players, including Pele and Bobby Moore, employing footballers who can’t act and actors who can’t play football was always going to be a challenge. But surprisingly, it's quite an enjoyable film.
Greg: It’s actually a very good film. In terms of other football films that you see, it’s made with a real eye for the game. So the big climax scene, the big match at the end, you get aerial shots of the match and you can see all 22 players in formation, running around. And it gives a real sense of gravitas and realism to the game and a lot of the extras in that film were Ipswich Town players at the time. It’s stood the test of time, it really does.
James: These two examples certainly have some charm about them. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for so many other movies. Football has a difficult relationship with the big screen - not to mention the direct-to-video small screen.
A common narrative is the football fairytale, an unlikely star overcoming various obstacles to make it at the top level of the game. Like the Goal! Trilogy….yep, they made three of those films…
Adam: Which got steadily worse as it went on. It was quite neat, the way it just got steadily worse. I think it ended up in Goal! 3 with Newcastle’s owner, Mike Ashley sort of belching down the camera and telling one of his underlings to go away in no uncertain terms.
James: There’s also been several films centered around football hooligans. Nearly all of them, pretty awful.
Iain: I.D. in the late 80s was particularly good.
James: This is Iain Macintosh.
Iain: Green Street, however, is not fit to lick I.D’s Doc Martin boots.
James: Green Street starred Elijah Wood as an American journalism student who gets mixed up in football firm in London. They made three of these as well.
Iain: It was just a genuinely appalling film on almost every level. Scripting, casting, oh god it’s just a terrible, terrible film.
James: Notable films such as Bend It Like Beckham, When Saturday Comes, Gregory’s Girl, The Damned United and even Fever Pitch manage to steer clear of being truly dreadful. But while they have their appealing elements, they’re far from special.
There are a some great feature films about sports but when it comes to the world’s most popular game, why do football films so often disappoint?
Greg: When you think of great sports movies you think of films like Rocky or Raging Bull which are films about an individual person and they’re struggle against social injustice or the fact that they’re perhaps not as talented as their opponent. Within football that’s quite a hard story to tell because you’ve got 22 guys on the pitch. And focusing on an individual story isn’t always beneficial to football because as we know, football’s a team game.
Adam: Football has so many moving parts and there are some seriously mundane things that football films just can’t really be bothered or doesn’t want to dedicate too much time to portraying accurately, like defending for example. One of the most unglamourous parts of football and football films find that very difficult to weave into their scenes. So you have, well you end up with defenders kind of tiptoeing around these attackers as they come towards them, you know, not really being able to put a tackle in. So what it does is sort of gloss over the nuts and bolts of football.
And then, what it ends up doing, it focuses on this very unrealistic, kind of defining moment. You know, airborne striker on the edge of the area, volleying in from, from 20 yards. And it kind of tends to ignore everything that possibly could have led up to that. So, in its efforts to boil football down, it ends up having this rather unrealistic view of what a football match is like.
Iain: Football in general is so extraordinary in a narrative sense. What you’re trying to represent is already exciting and is already available and is already kind of, determined by outside influences. Other than trying to make something exciting, it’s very, very difficult to make it better. And when you look at films that use football as some kind of driver like Gregory’s Girl or something like that, yeah that’s when it can be used in a positive way but to try and recreate a football fairytale over the course of an hour or two in the cinema is always kind of doomed to failure because real football fairy tales take place over huge swathes of time.
And yet, I think the only thing we can do is go in a completely different direction and make a story that’s really about characters in a football environment.
James: Once again, there aren’t too many examples here. But Greg pointed out one feature film in particular that does stand out. Offside, released in 2006. If there’s one advantage that film can offer football, it’s a platform to explore social and cultural issues that often go unrecognised.
Greg: Offside focuses on a group of Iranian women who want to go watch a match at Tehran’s national stadium between the Iranian National Team and Bahrain.
It’s kind of a controversial film to an extend because Jafar Panahi, who’s the director, he is basically exiled in Iran. He’s banned from leaving his house, the Iranian government banned him from making films. But like a rebel he somehow still manages to make them which is remarkable, really. And this film is also banned in Iran because of its sort of the sort, it’s depiction of the police state and the government over there. Iranian women are banned from watching football in that country.
James: Panahi has stated that he used football to highlight the wider discrimination against women in Iran.
In the film, the women risk being arrested while trying to sneak into the stadium, disguised as men. Despite being banned its home country, Offside won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Greg: It’s such a beautiful film. I think if you want to see a film about, sort of what it is to be a football fan, and appreciate the sport and what it means to people, then yeah, watch Offside, it’s a fantastic film.
James: So far we’ve looked exclusively at feature films but where football really shines is documentaries.
Naturally, football documentaries are something that I really enjoy and unlike features, your options here are much more generous.
The Four Year Plan, Hillsborough, The Two Escobars, I Believe in Miracles and Next Goal Wins are all fantastic films.
Another, that certainly set itself apart is Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.
Adam: It quite simply follows Zinedine Zidane round the Bernabeu for an entire 90 minutes with Mogwai soundtrack playing, quite softly in the background. It’s quite deliberately supposed to be this hypnotic, self indulgent, out of context view of a footballer.
Greg: In terms of cinema it’s quite an odd film because it’s very art house. What this film does isn’t anything remarkable, really, because he doesn’t have a particularly good match in this game. You’re just watching a human being, basically, over the course of 90 minutes.
James: But the film does give you a unique insight into the kind of player and person Zidane was, when you strip away all of the glamourous elements of his career. It’s definitely not for everyone but it’s an incredibly refreshing take on the beautiful game and I think that it's focused approach allows you to view football is completely different way.
Let’s face it, bad movies are gonna be made and we certainly haven’t seen the last of terrible football films. But as long as the game is embedded in our lives, expressing that through film will always be valuable.
James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson and support for the show comes from our amazing listeners. If you like what you hear and want to help the show grow, got to byassociation.audio/support
Many thanks to Greg Evans, Iain Macintosh and Adam Hurrey.
Both Greg and Adam have written excellent articles on football films for The Set Pieces Dot Com, including many of the titles mentioned in this episode, so go and check those out. Adam is also the author of the book Football Cliches. Links to these are in the show notes on your podcast app and on our website.
Music featured in this episode comes from Podington Bear.
And as always, By Association is presented by our parent site, 3nilfc.com, where we always love the game.