‘Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.’ – Martin Scorsese
Football and film are two of the most eminent cultural muses of the modern era, but very rarely have they been combined to produce cinema worthy of anything approaching artistic merit. With its inherent drama and continuously engaging narrative, football would appear to be a prime target for thoughtful, methodical translation to the big screen, but such work has not been forthcoming in recent decades.
The last thirty years have seen significant developments in the way in which football has been cinematically portrayed, but those changes have not necessarily resulted in the sport becoming a regular source of inspiration for film-makers and screen writers alike. 1981 saw the release of Escape to Victory, arguably the most famous football film of all time, with its stellar cast and ludicrous plot involving the foiling of the Third Reich by a handful of Allied POWs. However, despite the big budget and cameos from the likes of Pelé, Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardiles, Escape to Victory laid down an unfortunate marker for football films as cheesy, slightly stilted affairs – a reputation which is yet to be shaken off.
More recently we’ve seen the cinema of football stray away from the field and into the domain of hooliganism, directors such as Nick Love and Lexi Alexander creating laddish, violent and generally uninspiring films such as The Football Factory and Green Street. While carving out a certain niche in the industry, these films have been roundly criticised for glamourising violence and legitimising the actions of hooligan groups. If film, as Quentin Tarantino is always at pains to point out, is the art of storytelling, then is this really the narrative we want the sport to be presenting to audiences around the world?
While the trend in Britain may have been a move towards controversial films centring on football violence, the efforts of the likes of Nick Love are positively inspired in comparison to some of the recent efforts to come out of Hollywood. With wafer-thin plots and feeble casts, monstrosities such as She’s The Man have done absolutely nothing to further the cause of football in cinema, chintzy teenage stereotypes eviscerating any trace of the game’s authenticity from their cringe-worthy narratives.
But why exactly are so many of football’s ventures into the world of cinema so awful? One possible explanation is that the game is already more than dramatic enough without adaptation for the big screen. Football is such a naturally theatrical sport that cinematic interpretation, it could be argued, does little to enhance its innate appeal. There is little – perhaps nothing – that special effects and over-egged scripts can do to make the game more and intriguing than it already is. One of the primary functions of cinema is to dramatise and/or fictionalise elements of life in order to make them more relevant, entertaining and captivating to the perceived interests of the audience. However, if something already fulfils those requirements, as football arguably does, then perhaps there is little that film can do to build upon its attraction.
Of course, not all films focussed on or around football have been complete flops. Bend it like Beckham, Africa United and The Damned United all had their good points, while Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait crossed football cinema over into the realm of the purely artistic. Originally intending to use their work as an art installation, Gordon and Parreno focussed over thirty cameras on the great Frenchman during Real Madrid’s game with Villarreal in April 2005. Providing a fascinating, thought-provoking insight into the elegance and beauty that the game can generate, Zidane is an exciting glimpse of the potential for exploration that cinema could come to have with regard to football.
The depressing reality is that there is probably little market for the more experimental side of footballing cinematography and, while the odd independent film may appear from time to time, the more regular mass-market offerings will more than likely persist with the clichés and mediocrity that have propounded the awkwardness of football and cinema’s uncomfortable relationship. Don’t expect major changes to the status quo any time soon.