"You can put a cat in the oven, but that don't make it a biscuit"
There are a handful of quality films that deal with it tangentially, most of them foreign - "Offside", "The Cup", "Tickets" - and a few British films where it is a feature of the plot, but is not really central, such as "Gregorys Girl" and "Kes", plus a long line of films focused on football hooliganism. But there is nothing that does the sport justice, either purely as a game or for its societal and cultural importance. If you asked most people to name a film about football, I'm sure they would come up with "Escape To Victory". In the years since then, its portrayal in mainstream cinema has been limited to films which seem to target soccer moms and their offspring, like "Kicking & Screaming" and "Bend It Like Beckham". The "Goal" films, which will become a trilogy at some point in the next few years, are the only serious, big-budget attempt to portray what it is like to play Professional football at the highest level (apparently, its like being in a Gillette advert) and they are Roy of the Rovers-style fantasies full of last-minute screamers and every cliche imaginable. But watching them in a cinema for the European football fan was a bizarre experience - seeing the Beautiful Game fetishized, dramatised and reproduced prettily on a Big Screen, Ronaldinho, Henry and Beckham shot like Gods and slowed down as they do what they are actually most famous for doing, rather than seeing them posed and pouting in advertisements, felt somehow wrong. Yet I'm thoroughly accustomed to watching American films about their many lesser games - American Football, Basketball, Baseball, and even Hockey - which portray their stars the way the vastly more famous and popular football players rarely are.
But then football is notable by its absence in literature as well as cinema. It makes fleeting appearances here and there in many European and British novels and is referred to often, but I can't think of a single Major novel with football as its central preoccupation. Whereas Americans are unashamed of writing seriously about their sports. "The Natural", a novel about baseball by Bernard Malamud, is perhaps the most obvious example of this. Yet many decades earlier, Walt Whitman had written about Baseball and its importance to America. The main difference between the attitudes of the two cultures is that America has a less rigid dividing line between high and low culture. Many of the Great American writers wrote about sport, notably Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Ring Lardner and Jack Kerouac. Canadian Jack London wrote fight reports for Newspapers. This heritage of literature mixing with sportswriting has left a legacy which means American novelists are unafraid of tackling the subject in their work. There is also the idea of sport as a metaphor for America itself, which is an attractive one for writers. John Updike begins his "Rabbit" series with a game of basketball, and his hero Harry Angstrom is notably a former highschool basketball star. Richard Ford wrote an entire (great) novel with constant references to the subject while also dealing with life in late 20th Century America, and entitled it "The Sportswriter". Its sequel, the equally superb "Independence Day" features a trip to the National Baseball Museum as its central movement, communicating as it does so some of that games importance to the national psyche.
There are no British equivalents for these books (and as far as I know, no Spanish, German, French, Italian or South American equivalents, either). For much of the 20th century during which football established itself as the National Game of Britain and much of the rest of the world, it was also the game of the working classes. Writers didn't play football, they didn't watch football, and they weren't interested in football. They were from the middle classes, in the main, and so cricket was given a better representation in fiction (by P.G. Wodehouse and L.P. Hartley, for example) than football ever was. The great proletarian football novel is in fact a Rugby League novel - "This Sporting Life" by David Storey, which details the life of a Northern Professional Rugby League player. Its authenticity arises from the fact that Storey had been such a Rugby League Player. The closest anybody came to writing a similar book about football is in Eamon Dunphy's "Only a Game?", a warts and all memoir of a single season in the life of a journeyman pro in the declining years of his career at Millwall. Dunphy - a characteristically spiky Dubliner with some literary pretensions - talks about the actual ebb and flow of the games he plays in, but also discusses what it is like to hope a teammate is injured so that you can reclaim your place in the starting line-up, and details the politics of the training ground and the weary routine of the footballer in the 70s. This is the kind of thing a good novelist could have transformed into fictional gold, if only such a novelist had existed.
The 1990 World Cup and the launch of Sky Sports and the Premier League, with the associated decline in hooliganism at games, were the keys in transforming football into a middle class game in Britain. And so the changing profile of the game was reflected in the different kinds of books that were being written about it. "Fever Pitch" by Nick Hornby, a fans memoir, was inspired by "A Fans Notes" by Frederick Exley, a rivettingly intimate confessional which linked one mans ruined life and alcoholism to his obsessive devotion to the New York Giants. Hornby's book was more suburban, more domestic, but just as effective in its autobiographical tracing of the ups and downs in his life as told through a lifetime of supporting Arsenal. The massive success of Fever Pitch led to an avalanche of football books, which continues to this day with any player of note being awarded a tell-all, ghost-written "auto"biography, and specific games, tournaments, clubs teams and eras all receiving detailed, analytical treatment by writers. If you want to read a detailed, authorative history of German football in English, well you can. The story of exactly what happened to the England team at the 1970 World Cup? No problem. David Beckham's first season at Real Madrid? But of course.
Still there are no great football novels, however. The likelihood is that the author of the great football novel to come is only a young boy now, middle-class and living in Munich or Reading or Buenos Aires or Cairo, attracted equally to the worlds of books and that of football, unable to choose between the two. Eventually, his two interests will unite into a single one. Will there ever be a great football film? This is a more difficult question. The major problem lies in the visual representation of the game itself. The stock television camera angle for football - the camera fixed high in the stand at the halfway line - works so well because it is the right place to put the camera for the game. Football is broadly concerned with the exploitation of space. Players move into it, close it down, project the ball through it. Having the camera high up at halfway reveals this struggle for space as a 90 minute battle, relevant in every second of play. The footage will necessarily cut to close-ups, and pitchside shots, and angles from behind the goal in order to better detail the action. But all of this only works within the context of the stock shot from above at halfway. Cinema cannot really deal with this need. Any film that resorts to the stock shot risks looking like nothing so much as normal television coverage, and any film that does not abandons much of the meaning of the game, and with it a sense of suspense for anyone who understands how football actually works.
This is a lesser issue with Rugby League, and the film of "This Sporting Life", directed by Lindsay Anderson in 1963 is probably the best film of working class sport made in Britain. It focuses on the violence and the gritty, intimate exertion of the game at pitch level, while making most of its impact in its domestic scenes between Richard Harris' player and his landlady. "When Saturday Comes", starring Sean Bean as an up and coming Sheffield United striker, is probably the closest to this any film about football comes, and like the "Goal!" films, it is a Roy of the Rovers fantasy which makes little real attempt to honestly portray the game as it is.
Meanwhile, all of America's major sports have been treated relatively well - undoubtedly much better than football, at any rate - by cinema. Baseball comes off best, both in serious historical pieces such as "Cobb" and "Eight Men Out", character comedies and dramas like "Bull Durham", "For the Love of the Game" and "A League of their Own", or knockabout comedies like "Major League". American Football seems to best lend itself to scathing drama, (given its attritional, punishing nature) such as "Any Given Sunday", "North Dallas Forty" and "Friday Night Lights". Basketball, the most urban of games, is a feature of many urban movies, from "He Got Game" and "Finding Forrester" to "White Men Can't Jump". Its also featured in the odd historical story - "Hoosiers" and "Glory Road" spring immediately to mind. Even Ice Hockey has enjoyed a respectable movie career in the likes of "Slap Shot", "Youngblood" and "Mystery, Alaska". None of these games seems better suited to cinema than football, and the amount of films devoted to each may come down to the fact that they are so popular in America, giving them - in Hollywood's eyes at any rate - an inbuilt audience.
What football needs is somebody like Ron Shelton. Shelton played Professional Baseball for five seasons in the Minor Leagues before he switched his focus to the movie industry and writing. His first major credit was on Roger Spottiswoode's excellent Foreign correspondent drama, "Under Fire". Immediately, his talent for writing believable, human characters who drove his plots - rather than having their actions dictated to them by plot convenience - was evident, as was an excellent ear for a one-liner. His next film, "The Best Of Times", laid the blueprint for much of his movie career. Again directed by Spottiswoode, it focused on two ex-High School football heroes, played by Kurt Russell and Robin Williams, who tire of their average grown-up married lives, and become obsessed with replaying the final, losing, game from their High School days, and this time winning it. The film is a strange mix of comedy and drama, focusing, as much of Shelton's work would , on the complexities of masculinity and male friendship. It suggests how sports plays into these complexities without really investigating its role in any depth.
Shelton perfected this formula in his next film, his first as Writer-Director, "Bull Durham". A romantic comedy set around a season with a minor league Baseball team, territory he obviously knew very well, its a near-perfect blend of love story, sports film, and character comedy. Shelton's love of the game and its iconography is evident in every frame set around the diamond, in every conversation between Kevin Costner's jaded veteran and Tim Robbin's immature prodigy, and in all of Susan Sarandon's poetic solliliquays on the subject. The film has a unique atmosphere - sultry and humid, it captures the chemistry between the three main characters perfectly, each of them adroitly drawn and played. It may contain Costner's best ever performance. It was a big hit, allowing Shelton to make a not particularly commercial script into his next project. "Blaze" is the story of the relationship between an ageing Southen Governor, played by Paul Newman, and his young stripper girlfriend, Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich) and how the public response to this effects his plans for civil rights policies. Its not a bad film, with Newman characteristically good, but Shelton never seems as confident in his material as he was in "Bull Durham", and it never convinces you to care about the subject matter as you feel it must to succeed. So, in a career move he would repeat a few times over the next decades, Shelton made another comedy-drama next. He also returned to sports, making "White Men Can't Jump" about the world of basketball hustlers and writing the screenplay for "Blue Chips" about the politics and corruption of recruitment in college basketball. "White Men Can't Jump" is effortless in its depiction of its world of trash-talking and machismo, with Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes perfectly cast as its bickering leads. Its strength lies in the believability of its characters, the truth which leads the story to its bittersweet conclusion, driven by Harrelson's inability to change or even really compromise.
Though he had displayed no discernable individual visual style, Shelton had established a distinctive sensibility in his first three films through the quality of his writing and an ability to wring strong performances from actors. He was already associated with Sports movies when he made "Cobb", about the legendary baseball player Ty Cobb. Biopic as character assassination, "Cobb" is a finely crafted film, and Tommy Lee Jones is demonically charismatic in the title role, but it has limited interest for anyone without an interest in baseball history. It works as a character study, but like "Blaze" it suffers for the lack of the elements which made Shelton's other movies so impressive and memorable - the easy characterisation and the comedy arising from it. Like "Blaze", it was a commercial failure, and Shelton returned to the sports comedy, and Costner, for his next film. "Tin Cup" is a movie about golf, which doesn't make it sound particularly appealing. But its really about people, like all Shelton's films, and it uses golf as a sort of metaphor for character. Costner's laid-back slacker is talented but wreckless, and this trait has cost him a career on the Professional circuit, while his old rival Don Johnson has become a millionaire Golf star. They clash over Psychiatrist Rene Russo, and Costner is spurred on to take a shot at glory in his efforts to woo her. The films climax refuses cliche and instead remains true to its characters, making it more likeable and affecting, and Costner, always at his best playing a rogue, where the one-noted monotone and earnestness of his hero roles are absent, is fantastic, enjoying great chemistry with both Russo and Cheech Marin as his sidekick and caddie.
Shelton had one more sports movie in him before he abandoned the genre. "Play It to the Bone" is about boxing, sort of. Well, its about two boxers, but the actual ring action is restricted to the final 20 minutes of the film. The preceding hour and a half is taken up by the journey undertaken by the protagonists (Antonio Banderas and Woody Harrelson), two best friends and aging pugilists who have been summoned from L.A. to Vegas to fight on the undercard of a Mike Tyson bout. They must fight each other, with the winner guaranteed a title shot. Their driver on the trip is Banderas' girlfriend, Harrelson's ex (Lolita Davidovich) and along the way they squabble and bicker and flash-back to previous fights and events. Boxing is not like any other sport in that it has an extremely rich cinematic tradition. Each of these films is about boxing, each a classic in one way or another : "Body & Soul", "Raging Bull", "Somebody Up There Likes Me", "Fat City", "Ali", "Rocky", "Million Dollar Baby", "the Set-Up", "Girlfight". There are dozens of others. Boxing may be the most elemental sport, barely a sport at all, the spectacle that of two men hitting one another until one falls. It is made for cinema. Shelton had already been involved in one boxing film, when his script for "The Great White Hype" was filmed by Reginald Hudlin. Shelton hated the film and tried to have his name removed from it. So he may have felt he had some redemption to earn with "Play It to the Bone". But his gamble was to devote his movie to letting us get to know his characters so that when we come to that climactic fight we have a lot invested emotionally. But these characters don't live and breathe the way those in "Bull Durham" and "Tin Cup" do. Shelton obviously knows and understands baseball and golf. But his knowledge of boxing seems more cursory, and the film doesn't smack of authenticity the way the two Costner fims do. Crucially, its his least funny comedy, much of the humour forced and uncomfortable. The final fight is compelling, but then so are the majority of cinematic boxing matches. The drama is so obvious it needs no help.
Shelton moved on, directing David Ayer's script of a James Ellroy story about police corruption as "Dark Blue", then writing and directing a tinseltown satire-cum-cop thriller, "Hollywood Homicide". The first revealed his limitations as a director had not been eroded by all his experience, while the second suggested he had entirely lost his touch. He also had a hand, alongside three other credited writers, in the script for "Bad Boys 2", suggesting that law enforcement stories were his new obsession. But silence from him since then. Is it too much to hope that he will return with a hilarious and moving football movie? I think it is.
But at the time of writing, two films on the same subject await UK release. The Serbian director Emir Kusturica has directed a documentary on the life of Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest footballer ever. The film was made with Maradona's co-operation, but Kusturica, not a man to be bullied by anyone, had full creative control. The soundtrack is by Manu Chao, suggesting it will be a classy production. Italian director Marco Risi has also finished a biopic of Maradona, entitled "Maradona, La Mano Di Dio", which has already been released in his home country. Alongside the release of Vikash Doorashoo's "Substitute", an account of his mainly-idle days at the 2006 World Cup, it looks like being a great year for football documentarys. But fictional movies? The Maradona film and "Goal! 3" apart, there seems to be nothing at all on the horizon.
Which brings me back to the first line of this post: It is an odd and troubling reality that there exist no great films about football. And there will not be, for the foreseeable future.