Football on film – the good, the bad and the ugly

Michael Caine (third from right) and Pele. The greatest footballer of all time… and Pele.

It is tense inside Paris’ Colombes Stadium. The score is 4-3 to a villainous, cheating Germany but our brave lads, with a rousing half-time team-talk from Russell Osman still ringing in their ears, are on the charge.

Pele… sorry, Luis Fernandez, still nursing broken ribs, spreads the ball to the right for Terry Brady, who bears a striking resemblance to England World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore.

His cross loops into the box in glorious slow motion where Pele… sorry, Luis Fernandez, rises to connect with a stunning overhead kick that flies past the helpless German keeper. “Victoire!” chant the French crowd. Even Nazi officer Major Von Steiner rises to applaud.

Football films get a bad rap, but when they get it right, as in this standout moment from the big Nazis v Allied soldiers match at the end of 1981 war-time flick Escape to Victory, it is thrilling.

In the near 40 years since the release of John Huston’s bank holiday classic, only a few films have braved taking on the sport, with mixed results.

Some shine, more don’t and others seemingly exist purely to remind us just how tough it is to portray the beautiful game on the big screen.

‘But we can win this!’

Escape to Victory team
The Escape to Victory team featured actors Sylvester Stallone (goalkeeper), Michael Caine (front, third left) as well as footballers Pele (front, third right), Bobby Moore (front, second right), Ossie Ardiles (front, second left), John Wark (back, third right, Mike Summerbee (back, third left) and Russell Osman (back, first left)

There had been attempts to harness football’s popularity on film before Escape to Victory.

In 1939, the Arsenal Stadium Mystery did exactly what it said on the tin, with a murder plot at Highbury that featured Gunners and England stars Cliff Bastin and Eddie Hapgood, and then manager George Allison.

Brentford players of the time stood in for Arsenal’s fictitious opponents, The Trojans, during action sequences, which are accompanied by a Cholmondley-Warner-esque commentary to keep everyone up to speed and interspersed with cutaways to the most PC fan abuse of a referee you’ll ever hear.

Huston’s Escape to Victory, though, would be the first to really succeed at harnessing the game’s global appeal, specifically through the casting of Pele, Moore, Ossie Ardiles and members of the then successful Ipswich Town side in speaking roles alongside Hollywood heavyweights Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone.

Thanks to the professionals involved the match action has an air of authenticity, although it still can’t avoid the regular pitfall of defenders offering non-existent, choreographed challenges and too much reliance on unrealistically showy bits of skill.

Ardiles’ famous flick looks great in slow motion, but there’s no way he’d get away with it in a real match without being clattered, especially one where the opposition midfield is comprised entirely of dastardly Nazi prison guards.

The casting also provides one of the big hurdles football films still struggle to clear – footballers are not actors and thespians rarely have the skills to convince as players, even when you stick the American in net.

After all, the audiences at which these films are mainly aimed have seen enough football to spot an imposter and as iconic as his “but we can win this” line is, Osman is no Marlon Brando.

The producers of the Goal! films at least learnt from this and opted for an amalgamation of real game footage, interspersed sparingly with inserted close-ups of the actors in action, like a bigger budget version of Sky’s Dream Team, with Martin Tyler as Basil Exposition on commentary.

They even had the sense to have Laurent Robert as an in-game body double for lead actor Kuno Becker.

It all makes for a fun rags to riches tale, albeit one that may set some eyeballs rolling with its Hollywood narrative cheesiness, which includes the kind of improbable last-act goalscoring feat that might even top Sean Bean’s in When Saturday Comes.

One thing it does confirm, though, is that 30-odd years after Escape to Victory, footballers still can’t act.

‘England will be playing four-four-@*&~#$! two’

Michael Sheen as Brian Clough in 'The Damned United'
The Damned United was met with criticism from some of the figures it portrays for its historical inaccuracy, but Michael Sheen is utterly convincing as Brian Clough

Many of the most successful football films are those that tap into the history, culture and legend of the game.

The Damned United, an adaptation of David Peace’s novel, mythologises one of English football’s most revered figures, Brian Clough, during his ill-fated 44-day stint as Leeds manager in the mid-70s.

Grey, gritty and spattered with mud, the match action is smartly kept to a minimum, with the little bits on display serving to tap into the psyche of a fascinating and complex man, not least of all in a scene which sees Clough follow an entire game from the confines of his office, reacting only to the noise of the crowd.

Playing a similar theme for laughs is Mike Bassett: England Manager.

Inspired principally by the documentary ‘The Impossible Job’, which charts England’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, it is a love letter to the nation’s miserable and often hapless attempts to recapture the glory of 1966, with the titular character its beating heart.

Decent and honourable but way out of his depth, Bassett, played by Ricky Tomlinson, is an archetypal English football managerial figure – a bit of Ron Greenwood, a dash of Bobby Robson and a big dollop of Graham Taylor – in a tale that taps straight to the core of what it is like to follow the Three Lions.

“I am a passionate England fan and have been to World Cups,” Bassett creator and writer Rob Sprackling tells BBC Sport. “It is an experience born out of hope, brought down by huge disappointment.

“The film grew out of this sense that we were never as good as a Germany or Italy. And it was the frustration of years of seeing us continually pick the nice guy as our manager – well intentioned, passionate and patriotic – but never good enough to do what is a really hard job.

“Bassett is a hero to me. He is an eternal optimist who wants to create something good and make people happy but is ultimately destined to fail.

“All those familiar forces start to rain against him – the FA not really having his back, the fans going on the rampage, the players trying to jump ship and losing faith and the press turning on him.

“It is a tragedy of a man who wants to build something brilliant being slowly killed by a thousand cuts.”

Ricky Tomlinson (right) as Mike Bassett and Bradley Walsh (left) as his England assistant Dave Dodds
Scenes for Mike Bassett were filmed at the old Wembley shortly before it was torn down and rebuilt. Sprackling: “We had a game between the stars, who were all useful, and the crew, who were all fat and useless and we somehow won. Director Steve Barron, who is a Man Utd fan, scored a Bobby Charlton-esque winner and we went up the steps to hold up a coffee mug or something. The last team to pick up a trophy at the old Wembley.”

‘If it was only a game do you honestly think I’d care this much?’

Bassett has its glory moment, but does so in a ridiculously apt way, with the film’s Paul Gascoigne analogue, Kevin Tonkinson, exorcising a few national demons by punching the winner into the net against Argentina.

Bassett’s side are eventually knocked out in the semi-finals, but are heralded as heroes.

This eulogising of failure and ability to laugh at a subject so dear to the heart is a big reason it works so well as a football film, especially to an English fan sensibility so cynically conditioned to things going wrong.

“If you take it all too seriously and dress is up as something too important it can sink under its own weight,” says Sprackling. “In the same way that Spinal Tap managed to capture everything that is ridiculous but also brilliant about rock and roll, that is what we tried to do.”

Fundamentally, though, why Bassett – or indeed any film, sporting or not – is effective is that we become invested in the people involved and their story.

Bend It Like Beckham works as we root for central character Jess and her quest to overcome culture, class and gender barriers through her love for the game, Fever Pitch is good not because we care about football but because we care that Paul cares about football.

If you can find an affinity with a character – be it Gregory Underwood, Jimmy Grimble or the dog from Air Bud 3: World Pup – then no football film is truly bad.

Apart from United Passions. That is awful.

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