Why aren’t there any decent football films?

From Sly Stallone saving Nazi penalties to Frodo Baggins running with hooligans, the beautiful game comes off badly.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

This week saw the UK release of Ken Loach’s new film Looking for Eric. I thought about writing a review of the film, but decided against it because a) Tim Black beat me to it and b) I haven’t actually seen it. However, I’ve heard that it’s unusually rather good for a football-themed film.

This got me thinking. Why are there so few good football films? I can understand why Hollywood has given football the swerve. Soccer simply isn’t a box-office draw in the US. But you’d expect better from British filmmakers. It’s a national obsession on this side of the pond. Yet our filmmakers have conspicuously failed to do justice to the game.

Take feelgood sports films for example. I’ve yet to see a decent, rags-to-riches, Roy of the Rovers feelgood football movie. All previous attempts to copy the well-worn American rise-fall-and-redemption sports movie template have failed. When Saturday Comes, starring Sean Bean, is a particularly execrable example of the genre. Bean’s character is plucked from the factory floor and given a trial at Sheffield United. What can I say about this film? It has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. If you’ve never seen When Saturday Comes don’t bother. It’s an hour-and-a-half of your life you’ll never get back.

The same goes for Danny Cannon’s Goal. The film tells the story of a Latino youngster, Santiago Munez, scouted while playing park football in Los Angeles who goes on to play for Newcastle United. When it was released in 2005 it was hyped as the film that would break the mould, the first credible football movie. The film had everything going for it: big budget, Fifa approval, Oasis soundtrack, and cameo appearances from a host of star players including Zidane, Beckham, Raul, and Stevie Gerrard. There was only one problem: Goal was a stinker. Complete and utter tripe. Plus there isn’t a single fat weeping Geordie to be seen.

I think part of the problem with When Saturday Comes and Goal is that the British aren’t very comfortable making feelgood sports films. Chariots of Fire, a rare film about British sporting success, is the exception which proves that rule. Self-loathing is much more our style. We’re much more interested in the downside of sport than we are in telling simple Rocky-style stories about sporting triumph. The recent TV film His Mother’s Son, which charted the descent into alcoholism of George Best’s mother Anne, was a perfect example of the British sporting feelbad drama. Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 film, This Sporting Life, in which Richard Harris plays a rugby league player, is arguably the best British sport-related film, but there’s barely an ounce of redemption in it. David Peace’s novel The Damned Utd is a brilliant study of a football manager’s obsession and self-doubt, but the film adaptation suffers from director Tom Hooper’s attempts to paint a truer, less dark portrait of Brian Clough.

But even when British filmmakers have explored the dark underbelly of football the results have rarely been impressive. I’m thinking particularly about hooligan films here. We can make cockney gangster movies, so you’d think it would be fairly simple to produce a hooligan version of Get Carter or The Long Good Friday. Apparently not. Most football hooligan films are rubbish. ID, the story of an undercover cop who infiltrates a hooligan firm and then goes native, is utter garbage. The hooligans snarl and swear a lot, but look more like pirates than football hooligans.

Green Street isn’t much better. They get the designer clobber right, but its fatal flaw is the casting of Frodo Baggins as an American student who falls in with a group of West Ham hooligans. What were they thinking of? Nick Love’s The Football Factory isn’t a bad film, but it doesn’t really do justice to John King’s novel which explores the shifting sands of British working-class identity. The only hooligan film of any worth is Alan Clark’s The Firm, which stars Gary Oldman as an estate agent who leads a double life as the brutal leader of a gang of West Ham thugs. It might lack The Football Factory’s hooligan-verité, but Oldman’s compelling screen presence more than compensates for this. There are few actors who do psychotic as well as Oldman.

The only film to explore the non-hooligan dimension of football fandom was Fever Pitch, the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s celebrated book. Hornby’s confessional account of his own obsession with Arsenal is transformed by director David Evans into a typically British romantic comedy. The film has its moments, but it simply can’t recapture some of the best passages of the book, such as Hornby’s extended meditation on why no human pleasure – sex, childbirth, passing exams – could possibly compare to Arsenal winning the Championship in 1989 with virtually the last kick of the season. Bend it Like Beckham and Gregory’s Girl are two other football-related rom coms worth mentioning. Bend it Like Beckham is far too worthy for its own good as far as I’m concerned. Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl is, by contrast, a much better film, but it’s far more about teenage love than football. And while we’re on the subject of comedies, Mike Bassett Football Manager is passable, but for sheer toe-curling comedy of embarrassment you’re better off watching the original Graham Taylor documentary, An Impossible Job.

I haven’t mentioned Escape to Victory, of course. It’s not strictly speaking a British film, directed as it was by John Huston and starring Sylvester Stallone. However it’s one of the few films about football that is worth watching. I’m choosing my words carefully here. It’s not a great film. It’s certainly no Raging Bull. In fact, there are so many things wrong with it I haven’t got time to list them all. But somehow it holds a special place in the hearts of many British football fans. Why? Well, despite the anachronisms, the preposterous plot, and the hammy acting, the film possesses that winning combination of plucky Brits, football, Nazis and Michael Caine that we simply can’t resist.

I watched Escape to Victory again last Sunday and three things struck me. Firstly, Russell Osman’s ‘but we can win this’ rallying cry must go down as the most iconic half-time pep talk in football history. Simply inspiring. Secondly, the film serves as a timely reminder that pitch invasions are not necessarily a bad thing. If it assists Allied POWs escape from the Nazis then a pitch invasion is clearly A Good Thing. Finally, the film reminds us that there was a time, admittedly before many of us were born, when the Germans didn’t always score from the penalty spot. All young British goalkeepers should be shown Colonel Hatch’s last-minute penalty save to debunk the pernicious myth that Germans are invincible at spot kicks.

As I said Escape to Victory isn’t a great film. I’d be lying if I said it was a good film. But it’s still one of the best films about football ever. And that’s a sad indictment of the film industry’s failure to translate the world’s greatest game on to the silver screen.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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