No sooner had the U.S. women’s soccer team’s Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt after scoring the winning penalty in the World Cup final than Hollywood got in on the act. New Line announced via Daily Variety that it had bought an untitled comedy pitch about “a woman who leads her team to World Cup victory and is then recruited by a professional men’s soccer team. There, she competes with, and eventually falls for, the lead player while helping the men’s team to their own World Cup.” Anyone who cares about soccer should hope this movie— especially demeaning to Chastain and her teammates, who have succeeded on their own terms— is radically reconceived. Its premise is as ignorant as that of Victory, the risible 1981 John Huston film about POW soccer stars forced to play a German team for Nazi propaganda.
Soccer films have never been entirely convincing, partly because of the difficulty of authenticating the action, partly from a lack of marrying it to arresting drama. And then, non-soccer fans tend not to need soccer in any form, while soccer fans don’t need movies— they know that nothing the cinema can invent approximates the sheer unscriptable drama of, say, the 1966 World Cup final, or, for that matter, the U.S.A.-China women’s final. Deconstruct any thrilling soccer game after the fact, however, and you’ll find it loosely conforms to the three-act structure, with its catalogue of reverses leading to resurrection and ultimate triumph. Last May’s European Champions League final— in which Manchester United defeated Bayern Munich with two injury-time goals— is a classic of the genre.
One of the earliest soccer movies was Thorold Dickinson’s The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939), a thriller in which a player is lethally poisoned during a game. “This picture is as good to watch as either of the Thin Man films,” wrote Graham Greene, “and Dickinson gives us wit instead of facetiousness— wit of cutting and wit of angle.” Wim Wenders’s The Goalie‘s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971) uses the plight of every goalkeeper— lonely, alienated, trapped— as an existential metaphor; it’s the sole soccer movie by a major European auteur and the only one to pick up on the sport’s cosmic resonances.
There have been the inevitable bad-boy entries. Wearing its working-class heart on its sleeve, When Saturday Comes (1995) melded the nationwide revival of British soccer after an era of crowd violence and stadium tragedies with the burgeoning “lad culture.” Ian McShane, whose father played for Manchester United in the ’50s, starred in the Jackie Collinsscripted Yesterday’s Hero (1979), supposedly modeled on the career of United’s wondrously gifted George Best, who single-handedly ushered British soccer into showbiz in the ’60s before drinking himself into oblivion. The mercurial Irishman is the subject of a heavily fictionalized recent biopic by actor-writer John Lynch, but Best has yet to open in the U.K. A long-gestating Working Title film about the legendary United team that perished in the 1958 Munich Airport disaster has thankfully not materialized.
Bill Forsyth’s ever-delightful adolescent romantic comedy Gregory’s Girl (1980) was prophetic— both in its depiction of a gifted female soccer player inspiring male resentment and in its Scottish setting. “Fitba”— tangentially featured in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe and the recently released Irvine Welsh flick The Acid House— is the subject of the comedy The Match (about an ancient rivalry between two Caledonian pub teams) and an untitled $9 million Michael Corrente drama still in production. According to its producers, the latter will replicate the drift and thrust of soccer like no previous film. It will also probe the sectarianism that permeates the sport in Scotland: Robert Duvall plays an aging Presbyterian soccer coach who leads a lowly team to the Scottish Cup final, no matter that his daughter has married a Catholic player.
Fan culture has been fruitful for filmmakers. Loach and writer Neville Smith made The Golden Vision (1968), a riveting TV docudrama about the supporters (fictional) and players (factual) of Merseyside’s Everton; Smith himself played an Evertonian so dedicated he misses the birth of his child. It’s the same level of fanaticism that sustains and blights the life of an Arsenal-mad schoolteacher (Colin Firth) in Fever Pitch— Nick Hornby’s screwball-comedy adaptation of his seminal ’90s memoir— which opens here next month. Although tepidly received in Britain, the movie is a fine, fond primer of soccer as meaning of life and the downside of that perspective.
Soccer as Esperanto is meanwhile a theme of Eran Riklis’s Cup Final (1991)— it’s the language spoken by a PLO soldier and his Israeli captive— and The Cup, the directorial debut of Tibetan Buddhist lama Khyentse Norbu. Fine Line plans an early 2000 release for this infectious true tale set in a monastery-in-exile where a pugnacious boy monk persuades the abbot to allow the hire of a satellite dish so he and his fellows can watch the 1998 World Cup final.
Could this happen in a nunnery? One of Manchester United’s most famous supporters in the ’60s was a mother superior— soccer has never been a male preserve. The hottest soccer script around right now is New York filmmaker Leslie McCleave’s The Shamrocks, which she’s workshopped at the Sundance Institute. McCleave’s story, which she wrote long before the World Cup, follows a troubled Irish American women’s soccer team from Queens that’s threatened not least by the pillaging of its star player. Given the excitement generated by the U.S. women’s team, The Shamrocks deserves an immediate green light, for in its grassroots innocence it captures women’s soccer in America at the crucial moment before it succumbs to the Murdochian commercial exploitation rapidly eroding the traditions of the men’s game.