The relationship between football and the box in the corner of your living room is a somewhat complex one. On both the big screen, the game hasn’t particularly well served, in no small part because even all of the drama that can be mustered with the aid of a script, hundreds of actors, a bunch of actors and all the muscle that Hollywood can muster seldom matches the sheer, visceral, unscripted thrill of the match itself. Television does better. The structure and length of the television programme seems better suited to the stories that the game has to tell, and the traditional strengths of strong factual programming – well chosen archive material and outstanding research – are obviously perfect for documentary-style stories from the game’s past.
Football has been ill-served by the fact that so many high profile films about it have been so appalling. “Escape To Victory”, for example, seems to be gaining in popularity with age but the fact remains that it is a clunking, cheapskate rehash of “The Great Escape” with a match tacked onto the end of it. Meanwhile, “Fever Pitch” did the book from which it took its inspiration no favours in turning Nick Hornby’s brilliant book about the obsession of the football supporter into a sub-sub-sub Richard Curtis comedy, “When Saturday Comes” (no relation to the magazine) was a clunking, leave-no-Northern-cliché-unturned heap of tripe and 2005’s “The Game Of Their Lives”, a film about the 1950 USA World Cup team’s win against England that was packed with so many factual errors that the teams may as well have taken to the pitch riding space hoppers. However, there is some great stuff out there. You just have to wade through a lot of crap to get to it.
10. Six Days To Saturday (1963): Film director John Boorman would go on to greater success with the films “Point Blank” and “Deliverance”, but while working at the BBC’s documentary unit at Bristol, he produced this short film which followed Swindon Town for a week in the build-up to a Second Division match against Leyton Orient. Some of the interest here is in how different the world of 1963 is to that of today – the steam trains at the railway station and players scooting around the town in Morris cars are amongst the artefacts that we are unlikely to ever see again – but there is a cosily homely feel to life at The County Ground, doubtless aided by the club’s then-recent promotion. This isn’t available on DVD, sadly, but does occasionally pop up on the BBC.
9. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006): Although it borders on the plain pretentious, “Zidane” stays just on the right side of the tracks because of what we already know about Zizou and something about the way that he carries himself. There were seventeen cameras trained upon him, and they pick up on almost evey single tic, every shrug and every laconic trot towards the centre circle in search of the ball in the manner of a lion that has just woken up and is looking for his breakfast. The film occasionally nips away to the television coverage of the match, which prevents the viewer from getting too bored and gives what Zidane is doing some context. A very good piece of film, not quite as good as it possibly thinks that it is. Available to buy here.
8. Hillsborough (1996): Depending on which way you look at it, Jimmy McGovern’s “Hillsborough” is either completely about football in the late 1980s and the fractured relationship between all of the authorities – the media, the judiciary, the government and the police – and ordinary football supporters, or a story about a greater human tragedy. How do you quantify the scale of the Hillsborough tragedy? It’s an important question, because the residual after-shocks from it all ruined an almost unquantifiable number of people’s lives. Christopher Eccleston is outstanding as Trevor Hicks, whose entire life collapses after the death of his daughters. Available to buy here.
7. Match Of The Day – 60s, 70s and 80s (2004): A three-disc marathon, this DVD set is as much the story of “Match Of The Day” as it is the story of football in England between 1964 and 1989, although the two are so closely intertwined that you would be hard pressed to spot the difference at times. There are occasional lapses into, well, Motsonism from narrator John Motson and the apparently Rick Wakeman inspired soundtrack will make more discerning ears angry, but there is obviously some fabulous archive footage, along with some great shots of the changing face of (what often seems to be increasingly grudgingly) England’s favourite football programme. Available to buy here.
6. Communism & Football/Fascism & Football (2003): Another entry in this list that isn’t available on DVD, sadly, “Communism & Football” and “Fascism & Football” were a pair of documentaries made by the BBC exploring the relationship between totalitarianist politics and the game. The episode about communism looks at Hungary and Russia, before focussing on the 1974 World Cup match between West Germany and East Germany. The episode about fascism looks, of course, at Mussolini and Hitler before moving onto Franco and the construction of the Real Madrid empire. This is another show that may turn up again on the BBC in the future – keep your eyes open for it.
5. Another Sunday & Sweet FA (1972): Written by Jack Rosenthal for Granada TV in 1972, “Another Sunday & Sweet FA” is a comedy drama about a Sunday league football match, in which a referee has to keep two rival sides apart for ninety minutes. Brilliantly written and with a cast that features a number of actors and actresses that would go on to become familiar faces, “Another Sunday & Sweet FA” mixes gritty reality with a hint of fantasy, it also tells a few homes truths about park football that still ring true almost forty years after it was first written. Available as part of the “Jack Rosenthal At ITV” DVD set.
4. Goal! (1966): FIFA have been producing official films of World Cup tournaments since 1954 which have varied in quality, but “Goal!”, the story of the 1966 World Cup in England is the pick of the bunch. Japanese director Kon Ichikawa had revolutionised sports documentary making with “Tokyo Olimpiad”, his film of the 1964 Olympic Games, and “Goal!” leant heavily upon it, stylistically. It is narrated by journalist Brian Glanville, who is critical without being condescending, and the film has a close feel, with the sound of the ball on the grass almost feeling synthetically dubbed on. Even the soundtrack is a peculiar mix of reworked football songs and avant garde jazz. This film is, amazingly, not available on DVD at present but it is likely to turn up on ESPN Classic or the BBC before this year’s World Cup finals.
3. The Other Final (2003): When the Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals, film-maker Johan Kramer sent off two faxes to the national football associations of the two teams at the bottom of FIFA’s rankings, Bhutan and Montserrat, and see if they would play each other on the morning of the final itself. The result is a beautifully shot film about football in the two countries and the match itself. It’s a wonderfully uplifting film which tells a story of the universal appeal of football, even in countries that are still untouched by the commercialisation of the game that has overpowered it in the rest of the world. Available to buy from the film’s official website, and also available second hand on DVD elsewhere.
2. The Game Of Their Lives (2002): Another BBC documentary (and not to be confused with the wretched film about the 1950 World Cup), “The Game Of Their Lives” takes film-maker Daniel Gordon to Pyongyang to meet the North Korean team that reached the quarter-finals of the 1966 World Cup, beating Italy on the way. As well as telling one of the tournament’s most remarkable stories, this documentary is also notable for offering a rare look inside the strange world of North Korea and for the continuing love of the players towards their “Dear Leader”. Again, this film has a massive chunk brilliant archive footage, as well as meeting the surviving Korean players (yes, including Pak Do Ik) and some of the people of Middlesbrough that they charmed that summer. Again, this is not currently available on DVD but, with North Korea having qualified for thi year’s competition, it is certain to be shown again at some point over the next six months.
1. Once In A Lifetime (2006): After all those worthy BBC productions, the winner comes from… America. “Once In A Lifetime” starts from a great perspective, in that it has a great strory to tell – the rise and fall of New York Cosmos, the football club that, for a couple of years in the late 1970s, threatened to usurp the entire order of American sports before collapsing in a flurry of bouncing cheques. Even the absence of Pele from the cast of interviewees doesn’t detract from an effervescent story that is brilliantly told and confirms the widely held suspicion that NASL folded because of the incompetence of those that ran it rather than because Americans are somehow genetically incapable of enjoying the same sports as the rest of the world. Available to buy here.