Football and movies have been two of the greatest outlets for mass entertainment over the past century. It is little wonder then that the beautiful game has been portrayed in motion pictures on countless occasions, in numerous languages and from every angle imaginable. Hollywood’s award season concluded with the Academy Awards on Sunday, and FIFA.com takes a look at a few of the films down the decades featuring the round-ball game as a central theme.
One of the earliest films to wind its narrative around football was The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939). A ‘whodunit’ with Arsenal players among the characters, and the club’s famous old Highbury Stadium heavily featured, both help to ensure this film is significant on several levels, not least of all for its depiction of football from a very different era.
Legendary goalscorer Alfredo Di Stefano made a significant splash on celluloid, just as he did on the pitch. The prolific forward featured in several films, beginning with an Argentinian production Con los mismos Colores (With the same Colours - 1949). He returned to the big screen after moving to Spain to start his famed Real Madrid career. In 1956, Di Stefano not only played himself but lent his nickname to the film’s title - La Saeta Rubia (The Blond Arrow). It is ultimately a heart-warming tale about thieves who stole a wallet only to realise it belonged to their idol, Di Stefano, and the positive relationship they form with the ‘Blond Arrow’.
Football’s place in history
Germany’s catalogue includes two features dedicated to seminal moments in their footballing development. Der ganz grosse Traum (The Great Dream - 2011) covers the trials and tribulations of Germany’s introduction to the game over a 20-year from the 1870s onwards. It seems especially relevant given the nation’s subsequent football success and current status as FIFA World Cup™ holders.
Another poignant story told with a delicate mix of charm, drama and pathos is Das Wunder von Bern (The Miracle of Berne - 2003). Central to the drama is Germany’s unlikely 1954 World Cup Final win against the all-conquering Hungary, tying in one family’s involvement with the match but set against the backdrop of hardship following the Second World War.
A similarly entertainingly portrayal of a team’s World Cup journey is The Game of their Lives (2007). The film depicts the largely untold back-story to USA’s appearance at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, and their storied win over England in Belo Horizonte.
World War Two was also at the heart of one of the most unique and high-profile football-themed films, Escape to Victory (1981), or Victory as it was known in the USA. After all it is hard to beat a film that marries acting royalty such as Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone, along with Pele and a host of other football stars, including World Cup winners Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardiles.
“That team was terrible,” laughed Ardiles. “You had Stallone who couldn’t stop, pass or kick the ball, Michael Caine couldn’t even run. Bobby Moore and Pele were a bit old in 1981 – and Pele got injured after just two minutes of filming!”
The storyline, which involves a group of allied prisoners coupled together for a football match, and a possible opportunity to escape, had more than a touch of Hollywood fancifulness about it. But with an all-star ensemble cast under the directorship of the legendary John Huston, the film was always destined to be memorable.
Equality and relationships
Not all football films are based around the men’s game, and Bend it like Beckham (2002) was a somewhat ground-breaking look at the challenges faced by female players, especially when traditional cultural values are involved. Similar challenges are faced by the lead character in Gracie (2007) as she tries to follow her football dream in New Jersey during the 1970s. The film, which was inspired by real life experiences of one-time Oscar nominee Elisabeth Shue, is especially poignant as it overlaps with the introduction of the United States law which states that a person cannot be excluded from an education programme based on sex.
“The reality of what it’s like to be the only girl on a soccer team is very intense,” said Shue, who also featured in the film. “You have a lot to live up to and I was always really nervous. I fought really hard. I was actually kind of more aggressive than the boys because I wanted to prove that I belonged there.”
It would be impossible not to bring a classic movie thread, love, into football films. Few do it as well as Scottish production Gregory’s Girl (1981), a heart-warming tale where teen crushes, romance, football and humour intersect. Similarly, Fever Pitch (1997), a film based on the classic Nick Hornby novel of the same name, became an instant hit though sometimes it is unclear which of Colin Firth’s loves comes first – his partner or Arsenal!
Football’s Oscar winner
While a football film may be some way off winning an Oscar, there is one little-known ex-player who received the coveted award. One-time Dundee United forward Neil Paterson featured in the Tannadice Park side's forward line during the 1930s, but his true calling lay elsewhere.
Paterson made an early retirement from football, turning his attention to the written word. It proved a wise move with a writing career highlighted by winning the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for Room at the Top (1959). Reflecting upon his achievement, his granddaughter Fiona said: “Whenever I look at the statue it reminds me of what he did in his life. The funny thing is his story would have made a good film in itself!”
Leave your comments below to tell us which football film you have enjoyed and why.