For years the cinema has told us tales of unlikely heroes, pantomime villains and the battle between good and evil… But these are also the plot points of many a football match. Football is probably the biggest sport in the world, and yet the scripts written in stadiums rarely work on the silver screen. But why is that? Both can be high in drama, tears and surprises, but cinema trips and Spurs vs Arsenal remain two entirely separate hobbies. The beautiful game is 90 minutes, your average film is 90 minutes too. Can it be done?

MPW-16784Let’s look at a recent example: Goal! The Dream Begins came out in 2005, and I actually remember seeing it at the cinema. It involved a young Mexican man being plucked from obscurity of the Sunday league in a barrio section of Los Angeles (Domingo Liga sounds a lot classier doesn’t it?) by the bloke who played Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones. He encourages the young lead to come and play professionally in England for Newcastle United. There he finds love, Alan Shearer, thrills and the horror of David Beckham’s acting skills. Love? Thrills? Horror? Shearer?? Time to get the popcorn right? Well, not really… It is pretty average at best, truth be told. The story is just a bit dull and obvious, for all the cameos it still didn’t feel like I was watching football, and even Stannis couldn’t make me believe that Newcastle were challenging for a Top 4 Champions League spot… I later even learned that this film is actually Part I of a somewhat ambitious trilogy! One of the bigger problems I had with it actually came at the end. After a tense match, it all concludes (spoiler alert) with the lead guy scoring a last-minute free kick to win the game against Liverpool, with his left foot. I’m guessing they got some archive of the left-footed Laurent Robert to use for this moment, but the issue is that the lead had been right-footed for the entirety of the film, highlighted particularly when he was practising free kicks earlier on. Little details like that make me think that the film-makers didn’t really have a clue about football, and therein lies the key to why this and others before it didn’t quite work – a lack of connection to the subject matter.

Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightly in the 2002 sleeper hit film 'Bend It Like Beckham'

Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightly in the 2002 sleeper hit film Bend It Like Beckham

But there have been good movies with football in it. Take Bend It Like Beckham, a fun little film that introduced us to Keira Knightly, or Looking For Eric, where the lead character literally speaks to Eric Cantona in order to sort his life out. Both films have football as a form of escapism for their leads, and the films are good because the characters are engaging. Football helps drive the plot at times, but it isn’t the focus of either film. Escape To Victory, There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble and The Mean Machine are also fun little movies that use football to facilitate the plot, but really we just want to see Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Pele and co escape from their camp, Ray Winstone to not be speaking about betting odds, and Vinnie Jones to crack wise while making a crunching tackle…. Kind of like Vinnie Jones when he was still playing football then. Plus you’ve got football hooligan films like The Football Factory or Green Street. They’re pretty average, I never thought I’d give Danny Dyer acting credit but he’s certainly more believable in his role than the hobbit Elijah Wood was in his… My point is that there have been decent movies involving football, but still not about football. I’ve seen some good basketball and American football films too, but they all involved good characters and that’s what made them work, not being about the sport itself. Plus Coach Carter had Samuel L. Jackson, and who wouldn’t want him as a coach…

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Paul Gasgoine fighting to hold back the tears during England’s famous semi-final defeat to West Germany on penalties in the 1990 World Cup

To be fair to screenwriters, they’ve got a hell of a task on their hands. Fans have been making an emotional connection with their clubs and national teams for years, even decades. How can you create that same effect in under two hours? One way could be to look at past real-life footballing events. The Damned United looks at Brian Clough and his incredible managerial triumphs and it is great fun, as is Fever Pitch which looks at an Arsenal fan during their title-winning 1988-89 season. Even documentaries can work when doing something similar, with One Night In Turin a good example, looking at a fateful night when England lost in the World Cup Semi Final in 1990. It’s engaging because it is re-living the real life heartbreak that we all lived though. Of course there is the flip-side of presenting real events: check out the more arty Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. It’s a Real Madrid game in full, just showing Zidane. Just him running about. That’s it. Look, I like Zidane but I worry that watching this self-indulgence gave me unfortunate insight into a man-crush the director has…

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Fernando Torres skips around helpless Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes to score, sealing an unlikely place for Chelsea in the 2012 UEFA Champions League Final

So based on this, maybe it is possible… But there’s one thing we have forgotten. Football is insane, unpredictable, frustrating, tragic, inspiring, tear-jerking, exhilarating, boring and then insane again. Take Chelsea’s Champions League win in 2012, which came after years of disappointment that led some Chelsea fans to wonder if they would ever win the UEFA Champions League. They’d had bad referees, bad injuries, bad luck, and in John Terry’s case in Moscow one year, a bad centre of gravity. The 2011-12 campaign seemed like the least likely campaign the Abramovich era had seen so far. They had early setbacks with AVB getting fired, a former player with little experience becoming manager, unlikely comebacks, John Obi Mikel, last minute goals, extra-time, a red card for the captain, a missed penalty, injuries, Gary Neville jizzing his pants as an out-of-form striker rounded the keeper to win the game… And we’re not even at the final yet. They took on a German team in Germany, which is basically the set up for any old Hollywood adventure movie. Frank Lampard was the clever, cool-headed leader of the heroes, and David Luiz the plucky sidekick who doesn’t speak much English… The baddies were in front through a late goal. The goodies fought back with an even later one. Another Gary Neville scoregasm. Another penalty was missed. Chelsea then went behind in the penalty shoot-out when their best player missed, but clawed their way back again. And then Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mr Reliable, missed a penalty in the shoot-out to allow Didier Drogba to win the Champions League. Drogba, the player who didn’t get to take a penalty in Moscow years before because he had been sent off earlier in the game. As Gary Neville proclaimed, “It’s written in the stars”… And as we all know, Gary was right. Now imagine pitching that to Hollywood as a script? They’d laugh you out of the studio, saying it was the most cliché, fairy-tale mess that no-one would ever believe as reality. Jose Boswinga played in the final for God’s sake!

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Didier Drogba scores the winning penalty against Bayern Munich in the shoot-out to win the UEFA Champions League for Chelsea, one of the most unlikely results in modern football

And what about last-minute winners? Like the heroes of so many action movies, Manchester United have been down and out come the conclusion, but last-minute goals in Fergie time kept on coming like the eagles at the end of every  Lord Of The Rings movie. Do you remember when Michael Owen grabbed the late winner against Manchester City in the 2009 derby? Logic dictated that the game should have finished ages ago, that his knees would’ve fallen in on themselves before he’d even touched the ball. They were down, they were out… Oh wait, my mistake, 4-3 United. And I haven’t even mentioned the two goals they got against Bayern Munich in the last few minutes to win the ‘99 Champions League… Fergie time could well be the deus ex machina of the footballing world.

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Sir Alex Ferguson would make the perfect villain for any script, if you’re a City fan…

Now, if this happened in every film we saw it would become a gimmick that we would get sick of, but every unexpected final twist in a football game just keeps us coming back for more. Commentators often say, “You couldn’t write it”, and with football they couldn’t be more right. If people put half the stuff that happened into a script, it would be called the most over-the-top nonsense since Agueeeeeeerrooooooooooooo… Oh wait, that also happened for real. The fact is football can be stranger than fiction, and if you tried to write it would be a minefield to both make it feel both real and not too over-the-top.

So yes, the beautiful game can be a beautiful film. But doing so isn’t easy, and to get people to really care you’ve got to either have football as the backdrop for engaging characters, or look back at real-life footballing events to engage the audience. The fact is football is so bizarre at times that to an outsider looking in may not quite believe what is happening half the time. While TV series and movie franchises come and go like Chelsea number 9’s, football will keep us watching it forever. It is frustrating, but it can be wonderful too, and that’s why we love ishaolin-soccer-movie-poster-2003-1020206827t. In fact, for that very reason, perhaps there doesn’t even need to be a good film about football. Football is its own very effective theatre, every weekend for 90 minutes people live and breathe it. They don’t need it replicated on the silver screen because it’s already there to see in stadiums all over the world, with floodlights lighting up the stage for the shouting audience. To condense all the drama into 90 minutes in a quiet cinema is tricky, but more importantly is it even necessary?

P.S. I recommend checking out the trailer for Shaolin Soccer. Just look it up, and then tell me what drugs those guys were on when they made it…