We are now underway into the 2011/12 football season and already my beloved Spurs are sitting bottom of the table. This makes it an ideal time to assess the successes and failures within the always underrated football movie sub-genre. There are a number of forms that the football film has taken. It has shown a number of points of view within the game such as following the players (When Saturday Comes), the managers (The Damned United, Kicking and Screaming) or even the fans (Fever Pitch, Looking for Eric, Green Street). It’s been used in documentary form such as the upcoming film The Referees which follows three of the eponymous officials during the 2008 European Championships or mock documentary in Mike Bassett England Manager which parodies the old documentary that followed Graham Taylor as England manager, An Impossible Job, mocking the stupidity within football. The football film has also formed as an art house film with Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait in which a myriad of cameras followed the Frenchman around the pitch for 90 minutes in a Real Madrid game against Villarreal. There has been a number of ways in which the subject has been approached which is always refreshing, sometimes to bizarre effect in Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer which mixes football and Kung Fu.
A lot of the successful films within the genre have more elements and issues to it than just the football. Many of the football films have very little football in them such as Africa United that charters three African children’s journey to the World Cup in South Africa. The Damned United was an intense character study of Brian Clough more than anything else, whereas Looking for Eric had a man suffering from depression but coping with it through his love of Manchester United and Eric Cantona. There have even been issues raised and questioned with football overseas such as in the 2006 Iranian film Offside which deals with the state in which women in the Middle East are treated and their position within Muslim society. This was also dealt with back in Britain with Bend it like Beckham establishing sociological issues through a footballing narrative. In these cases football only acts as the backdrop to important, cinematic ideas. Escape to Victory shows this perfectly where the small football match is presented amidst an entire World War.
Although there has been a lot of quality there is always the stigmatism which people label the football film with. It has in the past been chided for veering out of the sports world and entering the sometimes discriminative film world. Branded predictable and badly shot there have been a few films out there which have solely been made to exploit footballs huge audience and try and make money. Although sometimes one must admit that the emotion within the game now looks parodic and clichéd such as Vinnie Jones’ Mean Machine and the actual footballing cinematography is quite poor such as the scene in which Sly Stallone is in net in Escape to Victory. One must look past these flaws to see into the football film. However, there are the offenders in the genre which are the knock offs that have taken the successful formula built up by past films and using them. This can be shown with the huge amount of copycat films that came after Football Factory such as Awaydays and 2009 version of The Firm which just showed firms kicking into each other in favour of a narrative and are so tired and boring: a guy who can’t find his way in society joins a football firm, gets in with a bad crowd, kicks some heads in learns some lessons, the end. Filmmakers must resist this quick fix if the football film is to have a future.
However, no matter how predictable the football film can be there is still much fun and insight to be gained from a lot of these movies. The fact that there are so many different angles lets us into a side of the game usually restricted to us. Like any genre it is going to have its good and bad films and I think there is plenty of space in the market for more films, perhaps one dealing with the current financial climate. Anyway, to finish off, here are my personal favourite top five films in the football sub-genre:
1.) The Damned United
2.) Mike Bassett: England Manger
3.) Looking For Eric
4.) Bend It Like Beckham
5.) Escape to Victory
It may seem biased that Fever Pitch didn’t make the top 5 because the author of the book and the character is an Arsenal fan, however I just thought these films we’re altogether better. Also, Goal didn’t get a mention because it’s a shameless namedropper of a film that pulls all the overused clichés and is just awful. No wonder the sequel was straight to DVD.