Football on Film: 133 Years of Hurt Never Stopped Me Dreaming…
It was a tough half in Paris for the Allies against a roughhouse Nazi team, finding themselves 4-1 down at the break. Sly Stallone performed heroics between the sticks, despite barely knowing the rules of football, and Bobby Moore pulled one back to provide a glimmer of hope.
The bent referee ignored many blatant fouls by the German players, and Pele was singled out for some particularly horrific tackles. The Nazis tore into him like a certain section of society lash into the latest Marcus Rashford tweet.
The game seemed all but lost, with Pele coming off with injured ribs, but no matter - the French Resistance succeeded in tunnelling into the Allies' dressing room. They were about to make their escape to - well, just an escape, really - when Ipswich Town legend Russell Osman and some of the other players talked the team into playing the second half in the belief - "we can win this!"
They headed back onto the field and salvaged a 4-4 draw thanks to a late, late overhead kick from Pele and a last-minute penalty save from Stallone. Then they escaped anyway because the crowd mobbed the pitch and whisked them away to safety. So they escaped to victory, despite the match ending all square, yet they played fairer than the Nazis, so it was a moral victory, I guess?
The match is the centrepiece of John Huston's popular Boy's Own POW football movie Escape to Victory, also starring Michael Caine, Ossie Ardiles, Max von Sydow and about half Bobby Robson's Ipswich Town side, back when they were one of the best teams in Europe rather than the third division also-rans of today. I might upset people by saying this, but as enjoyable and rousing as it is, the film is basically a poor man's The Great Escape, with added footy. Despite this, it is still about as good as it gets when it comes to football on film.
It's an enduring mystery how, in the 133 years since the first ever motion picture, the world's most popular sport has yet to inspire a truly great movie. While there are a few noteworthy entries, the first XI of football films looks about as strong as the second string of a Premier League relegation battling outfit, trotted out to play a pub team in the FA Cup third round.
There is the nostalgic, workmanlike When Saturday Comes, starring Sean Bean as an ageing brewery worker who gets the chance to fulfil his childhood dream of playing for Sheffield United. Those aching for the two-yearly farce of England at international tournaments might plump for a bit of Ricky Tomlinson in the clodhopping Mike Bassett: England Manager, poking fun at the national team's perpetual shortcomings and the media circus that surrounds it.
Those with a literary inclination might prefer The Damned United, Tom Hooper's dark drama following Brian Clough's ill-fated 44-day stint at Leeds United, while Bend it Like Beckham is charming but now seems as dated as... well, David Beckham.
A few might argue for the inclusion of Fever Pitch, a lively adaptation of Nick Hornby's much-loved novel, although it is hampered by a hyperextended Colin Firth ligament, gamely attempting to play someone who loves football.
Then you have your journeymen making up the numbers, like the unfancied Goal! movies and Mean Machine starring Vinnie Jones, and fringe players with not a little flair, like the bizarre Shaolin Soccer. You can always call on a cameo appearance from Ken Loach's Kes, which features one of the best football scenes in any movie, as Brian Glover's bullying PE teacher casts himself as referee and star player in a match against a bunch of kids.
Football movie fans have to look to documentary features to bring a little quality to the squad. The Zimbalist Brothers made a mockery of the hoary old notion that Americans don't understand footy with The Two Escobars. It's an electrifying look at the mercurial Columbian side of the early 90s and their relationship with drug lord Pablo Escobar, leading to the tragic shooting of their namesake captain Andre after his own goal dumped the team out of USA 94.
After creating complex portraits of Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse, Asif Kapadia completed his hat-trick with Diego Maradona, a captivating rise-and-fall tale of the much-maligned Argentinian footballing genius.
So what is it about football movies that makes them so mediocre in general? To answer this, perhaps the correct question is - why is football so difficult to capture on film? One part of it may be the low scoring nature of the sport. Around 8% of matches finish 0-0, while a further 16% are 1-0 victories, meaning there is almost a 1 in 4 chance that one or both sets of fans go home with nothing to celebrate. Much of the drama is that agonising battle against boredom, and football is 90 minutes of high-anxiety hope that your team will prevail against the game's in-built potential for tedium.
It is also a form of organised chaos, where a world-class keeper can be embarrassed by an unfortunate bobble and the meanest defence unravelled by a freak deflection. There are moments so unlikely that they seem almost scripted by a higher force. Take Manchester United’s two goals in injury time to beat Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final and complete their historic treble. Only a few weeks earlier, at the other end of the football pyramid, on-loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass went up for a corner and banged in a last-gasp winner to save Carlisle United from relegation and oblivion. When the most dramatic moments seem written by the cosmos, it is no wonder mortal screenwriters struggle to replicate the sport's unpredictable euphoria.
All that said, many team sports feature a similar dearth of quality when it comes to movies. Ice Hockey has the likes of Slap Shot and The Mighty Ducks; American Football has Any Given Sunday and Varsity Blues; basketball has Hoosiers, Coach Carter and the vulgar, irreverent mash-up BASEketball. This brings us neatly to baseball, the great American pastime, and the only team sport that truly has a roster of great movies.
There are many good ones - Bad News Bears, The Sandlot, A League of Their Own, Bull Durham - the list goes on and on. Then baseball also has a couple of films that transcend the sport itself and have become beloved by movie buffs who wouldn't dream of sitting through a baseball game.
First, there is The Natural, Barry Levinson's nostalgic fable about a middle-aged rookie getting his chance at the big time after his early promise was curtailed by a shooting. Starring Robert Redford at his most cinematic as the mysterious Roy Hobbs, the film plays almost like a superhero movie these days, as he uses his magic baseball bat to save his club from its infernal, vampiric owner.
Then, of course, there is Field of Dreams, with Kevin Costner as an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield after hearing a supernatural voice telling him: "If you build it, he will come."
Gentle and humorous with winning performances throughout, Field of Dreams distils the positive ideals that we associate with the sport, despite barely showing a ball pitched in anger. It's a heartfelt, charming story that touches on so many themes - hope, regret, responsibility, dreams, and the therapeutic love of the game.
By delving into the mythic and the magical, these two films get far closer to the essence of the sport than the straightforward winners-and-losers narrative that football movies tend to focus on. When I think of Field of Dreams especially, I think of a lovely quote from the late, great Bobby Robson:
“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It's not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It's the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It's a small boy clambering up the stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father's hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
If screenwriters and filmmakers could find a way of tapping into these sentiments rather than the prosaic stories they normally hash out, then maybe one day we footy fans will have a Field of Dreams to call our very own...
If that has whetted your appetite, why not take a look at the sport related movie posters we have tracked down?