A year ago this month, we took a look at ten of the finest films and television shows ever made on the subject of football. In some respects, finding truly excellent programming about the game is more difficult than it is to find absolute rot, but there are some rules that we can apply which help us find our way through the minefield of production companies that want us to watch their offerings. Looking down the list of the great films, you may note that almost all of them are documentaries, with only Jimmy McGovern’s “Hillsborough” and Jack Rosenthal’s “Another Sunday And Sweet FA” making the cut from the section of the archive marked “Fiction”.
There are other dramatic interpretations of the game that are worthy of your time – apart from those on our previous list, Ken Loach’s “Looking For Eric” is a mini-masterpiece, and the 1983 comedy-drama “Those Glory Glory Days”, also co-scripted by the aforementioned Rosenthal, are also well worthy of your attention – but, on the whole, to make the assumption of “documentary good, drama bad” isn’t an unreasonable starting point from which to take one’s cue when searching out football on the screen. In the mediocre middle of the spectrum we could place such offerings as “The Manageress”, Channel Four’s flawed series about a female manager at a top football club, or “Bend It Like Beckham”, a children’s film with a positive message but little to commend it aesthetically. When things get bad, though, they get really bad.
Where, though, does drama get things wrong when dealing with football? There’s an element of tautology about saying this, but live football itself is plenty capable of creating greater drama than drama can. How many times have we heard a commentator reminding us, after an unlikely end to a match, that the twists and turns of it would have been rejected had they been scripted for being too out of the ordinary? Where dramas about football really succeed, they succeed in the mundanity and the banal. The agonising, drawn-out, living death suffered by the relatives of those that were killed at Hillsborough, the existential angst of the Sunday League referee – these are universal human emotions that can be painted against a sporting backdrop. The often weird, bubble-like world of football can be impenetrable to those of us that immerse ourselves in it, never mind anyone else.
Then, there is the small matter of the fact that, broadly speaking, footballers can’t act and actors can’t play football. This is important because, if nothing else, a drama that in any way centres upon footballers is likely to require people that can do both and, when this shortcoming is coupled with the tendency of directors to go for as dramatic a shot as possible, the likelihood of something that doesn’t feel or look anything near real becomes extremely high. The slow, exaggerated shot may look good in a conventional action movie, but a lingering, slow motion shot of a scissor kick usually ends up looking slightly ridiculous.
With this is mind, we will be bringing you what we feel to be the ten worst football films ever made. There is an element of arbitrariness about our choices – how, for example, do you decided which is the worse film between “Air Bud: World Pup” and “Soccer Dog 2 – European Cup”? – and it is only fair that we give a little time over to some of those that didn’t quite make the cut. There was, after all, a lot of choice and not everybody could make the top ten. A couple of those recommended to us, “Hotshot” and “A Minor Miracle”, for example, couldn’t be included because we were unable to locate them. Considering what IMDB has to say about them (1987’s “Hotshot” merits a mere two line plot synopsis: “The story of an American soccer player trying to make it big who turns to Pele, the greatest soccer player of all time, for guidance”, while 1983’s “A Minor Miracle” warrants even less of a footnote: “A group of orphans and their guardian get together to try to save their orphanage”), either or both may have merited their inclusion had anuone been mad enough to release them on DVD.
One omision that may surprise one or two of you is “Escape To Victory”. Easy though it may be to chuckle at Sylvester Stallone’s surly impersonation of a goalkeeper or Michael Caine’s paunch squeezed into a 1930s football shirt, “Escape To Victory” is not really a football film, rather a war-film-by-numbers with a football match tacked onto the end of it, and it’s also worth watching for the shots of the rather wonderful Hidegkuti Nándor Stadion, which doubled for the Stade Colombes in it. The footballing cast (again featuring an apparently desperate to break into acting Pele) also makes for a diverting game of “Spot The Early 1980s Footballer”. Ipswich Town provided several of the players, including Frans Thijssen, John Wark, Laurie Sivell, Kevin O’Callaghan and Russell Osman, whose line, “But we can still win this”, remains one of the films defining moments and the undisputed highlight of the former England international’s career.
To take you off those tenterhooks (because we know how much these things matter to you), “Soccer Dog 2: European Cup” doesn’t make the cut, even though the picture painted of Scotland (which is quite clearly a park somewhere in California) panders to every cliché in the book. Kilts? Check. Haggis? Check. Any idea what haggis actually is? Not checked, by the looks of the porridgesque gloop that is served up in its name. Another kids film, There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble, surprisingly includes appearances from Ray Winstone and Robert Carlyle, and the comedy film Mike Bassett: England Manager suffers from over-acting, jokes that are so heavy-handed and telegraphed that the word “GAG” may as well flash up on the screen every time one is coming along, but the fact of the matter remains that there are ten worse than this.
Going back a little further in time, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (in which an amateur team called The Trojans – really Brentford in disguise – start dropping dead during a match at Highbury) is obviously a hokey piece of nonsense, but it is a lovely period piece with some sumptuous shots of Highbury and it is probably worth the price of the DVD to watch Arsenal’s then-manager George Allison and players such as Cliff Bastin and Eddie Hapgood having a go at that acting lark alone, whilst bearing in mind that it was only just over a decade since “The Jazz Singer” brought talking pictures to a mass audience for the first time. On the whole, though, the football film is a relatively recent creation, possibly spurred on the commercialisation of the game that started to take it over during the early 1990s.
With that in mind, we’ll be rolling these out over two posts on this site over the next couple of weeks. Our disbelief is suspended as it can be and we’re ready for a rollercoaster of emotions that (we rather suspect) will feature quite a lot of underdogs triumphing – or nearly triumphing – over adviersity. Don’t go changing that dial, and feel free to leave your favourites – and least favourites – in the comments section below.
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