As early as in 1939, with The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, football has served as the central element in the plot of an uneven collection of films. Certain sports, like Baseball for instance, lend themselves quite well to celluloid and there have been some terrific movies on these subjects that have been released over the years.
Although there have been some decent football films, we've never had a Field of Dreams, or a Bull Durham yet. It could be down to the fact that Hollywood doesn't fully understand football, or that the sport itself isn't as episodic as baseball or American football, and it's harder to capture the ebb and flow of football within a cinematic narrative.
Regardless of there not being a football film that you can call a true classic, there have been a few that are worth discussing, so I dug through my DVD collection and randomly pulled out the following five to look at:
Goal! The Dream Begins
If you can get around the fact that Goal has an exclamation mark in its title and was done in partnership with FIFA, which led to a lot of shameless product placement for their sponsors littered throughout, this actually wasn't a bad film. Goal! The Dream Begins, was the first film in a trilogy that charted the rise of Mexican-American Santiago Muñez (Kuno Becker) from the the Barrios of East LA to the world of professional football. The acting is a bit uneven in places, but the story isn't bad, the soundtrack is great and the on pitch action is really well shot. Check this one out, but give parts 2 and 3 a miss.
Victory (aka Escape to Victory)
Imagine the classic war film The Great Escape and then substitute in a young Sylvester Stallone for Steve McQueen, swap Michael Caine in for Richard Attenborough, replace the rest of the cast with Ipswich Town squad from the early 1980's, add Pele, Oswaldo Ardiles, along with a few other international football stars and substitute the tunnel escape with an epic football match. That in a nutshell summarizes the cult classic Escape to Victory. The story is a bit of a Disney version of the notorious "Death Match", and the acting is diabolical, but the match at the end of this film is beautifully shot. For more information on how this unusual film came together, check out our piece on "When Pele Met Stallone".
The Damned United
Based on the 2009 best seller by David Peace, which in itself was loosely based on the troubled 44 day reign of Brian Clough in the Leeds United hotseat, The Damned United is a little unfairly maligned. The book itself was written as a piece of creative non-fiction from Clough's perspective and came under fire from the players who played under Clough in the 1970's, along with the late managers family. As the film couldn't try to get inside Clough's head like the book had, it attempted to tread the line between a more factual representation of the events and also add a bit of dramatic narrative. It works in places, but some of the events and characterizations really feel made up. The overwhelming positive part of the film is Michael Sheen's terrific performance as Brian Clough though. He's truly wonderful and the film is worth seeing for his performance alone.
There's Only One Jimmy Grimble
A surprise inclusion, but this film about a boy from Oldham who dreams of playing for Manchester City is an enjoyable enough way to kill a few hours. Taking inspiration from the comic strip Billy's Boots, the naturally nervous Jimmy Grimble comes into possession of a seemingly magic pair of football boots and he suddenly becomes the best player in his school side. As Jimmy dodges bullies, falls for the new girl and leads his school to the Manchester Schools Cup Final it all plays out as being pretty formulaic, and it is, but there are actually some decent performances in this film from Robert Carlyle as his football coach and Ray Winstone as his moms ex-boyfriend. The on-pitch action isn't bad and even though the story is fairly simplistic, it all has a feel good aspect to it.
Kicking & Screaming
This is a film that leaves me scratching my head as to why I own it. I must have staggered into Best Buy after a few pints at the pub, saw it in a bargain bin and thought, "I love football and that Will Ferrell is one funny guy, so how can't this be a great film?" Well, the answer is that this film is an absolute disaster. In attempting to harness Ferrell's manic version of comedy and place him in the role of a typical overbearing parent soccer coach, the film's producers scored a horrible own goal. The plot is pretty awful, the acting is poor, the characters are underdeveloped and the tone of the film is awful. As a side note though, this film serves the purpose of reminding those of us in North America of some of the win at all cost coaches our kids get lumbered with, who place winning an Under 8 house league title over skill development. Anyhow, I'm off to post this film on eBay. Bids start at 50 cents.