As a global sport, football is integral to so many cultures around the world and naturally, we see it represented in many different art forms, including film.
The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is recognised as one of the first adaptations of the world game to the big screen. Released in 1939, the film focuses on a fictional exhibition match between Arsenal and amateur club, ‘The Trojans’ at Highbury Stadium. During the match, one of the Trojans players drops dead and a murder mystery ensues. It’s still highly regarded as an important film of its era.
Football films came in and out of fashion quite consistently over the following years, hitting a peak in 1981 with the release of the cult classic, Escape to Victory. Known simply as Victory in North America, the film tells the story of World War II Prisoners of War who agree to play an exhibition match against a German team. Learning that the match is a German propaganda stunt, the Allies devise a plan to escape from the stadium.
It’s held up to be one of the better football films and is supposedly (very loosely) based on a real match. The story portrayed on screen however is very much dramatised, as movies tend to be. Starring Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone and featuring big name players, including Pele and Bobby Moore, employing footballers who can’t act and actors who can’t play football was always going to be a challenge. But surprisingly, it’s quite an enjoyable film and is actually one of few examples where the scale of a real life match is presented fairly accurately.
Both of these films certainly have some charm about them but unfortunately, the same can’t be said for so many other movies. Football has a difficult relationship with the big screen, not to mention the direct-to-video small screen. A common narrative is the football fairytale, an unlikely star overcoming various obstacles to make it at the top level of the game. Like the Goal! Trilogy.
There’s also been several films centered around football hooligans. I.D., released in 1995 is one of the better examples but Green Street (and its two sequels) was a terrible film on nearly every level. It starred Elijah Wood as an American journalism student who gets mixed up in a football firm in London. Honestly, the less said about it the better.
Notable films such as Bend It Like Beckham, When Saturday Comes, Gregory’s Girl, The Damned United and even Fever Pitch manage to steer clear of being truly dreadful. But while they have their appealing elements, they’re far from special. There are a some great feature films about sports but when it comes to the world’s most popular game, football films tend to disappoint more often than not.
Although, there is one feature film in particular that does stand out. Offside, released in 2006. If there’s one advantage that film can offer football, it’s a platform to explore social and cultural issues that often go unrecognised. And Offside does this superbly.
The film focuses on a group of Iranian women who want to watch a crucial World Cup Qualifier at Tehran’s national stadium between Iran and Bahrain. However, women are banned from attending football matches and other sports events in Iran. This leads the women to adopt disguises in order to sneak in.
Director Jafar Panahi has stated that he used football to highlight the wider discrimination against women in his home country. The Iranian government have since banned the film and Panahi was placed under house arrest and banned from leaving the country.
Great feature films may be few and far between but where football really shines is documentaries. The Four Year Plan, Hillsborough, The Two Escobars, I Believe in Miracles and Next Goal Wins are all fantastic films.
Another, that certainly set itself apart is Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Filmed in real time, it follows Zinedine Zidane for an entire match with 17 cameras, all focused on the player during a La Liga match between Real Madrid and Villarreal. Although Zidane doesn’t have a particularly good game, the film gives you a unique insight into the kind of player and person he was, when you strip away all of the glamourous elements of his career. It’s definitely not for everyone but it’s an incredibly refreshing take on the beautiful game that allows you to view football in an incredibly unique way.
We certainly haven’t seen the last of terrible football films but as long as the game is embedded in our lives, expressing that through film will always be valuable.