Five Film Favorites: Football films to watch in anticipation of Barca vs Man U

Even though many of this year’s UEFA Champions League quarter- and semi-final matches were, generally speaking, snooze fests that provided little if any class or magic, it would be hard to ask for a better final match-up.  Barcelona are looking to not only complete the La Liga and Champions League double, they are seeking to establish themselves as one the greatest sides to ever play.  Had they not lost out to a defensive minded Inter last year in the semis, they would be favorites to earn three straight crowns: an unprecedented feat.  Manchester United, likewise, are looking for a domestic league and Champions league double. And while Alex Ferguson’s squad is not as talented as his previous Champions League winners (1999 and 2008), a Champions League trophy to accompany their 19th domestic title would certainly and finally elevate them over their historic rivals Liverpool as England’s most celebrated and decorated club. 

So everyone has ample reason to anticipate the Champions League final in Wembley on May 28, but what should we all do until then?  Well, if you are not watching replays of matches on the Fox Soccer Channel, I have provided a list of my five favorite football films.  This actually took a little bit of work, as football, like most sports, has served as fodder for some truly awful cinema.  Yet there are five gems that I genuinely like. 

Before I begin the list, let me make a lengthy mention of the most notable absence: Victory (1981).  I will not put Victory into the bin of dreck that so many football and sporting films properly belong, but it is not good.  It is quite an odd duck. Victory was directed by John Huston, who was nearing the end of his long and distinguished directorial career.  The man who directed Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon in 1941 ended up directing Sylvester Stallone 40 years later: rather unfathomable.

Speaking of Stallone, when he starred in Victory, he was still viewed as a respectable and award-winning actor and writer.  It took the entirety of the 1980s for him to become the monstrous and unwatchable caricature of Rocky/Rambo.

Yet even more bizarre than the combination of Huston and Stallone is the pairing of Brazilian footballing legend Pele, Argentinian World Cup winner Osvaldo Ardiles, and England national hero Bobby Moore.  Somehow, Michael Caine wore the captain’s armband. Victory is the platypus of football films.  It is neither  graceful, efficient, nor aesthetically pleasing.  Yet the awkward combination of parts makes one want to look.  For films that are well put together, let us get to my five favorites.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) – Directed by Wim Wenders

A slow, psychological detective film, The Goalie’s Anxiety uses the loneliness and isolation of the goalkeeper as the ignition for the eventual murder that takes place.  The film itself does not center on the drama produced by the sport or a single match.  Yet the drama is made possible through that one moment of anxiety and fear that contributes to the breakdown of goalie Joseph Block (Arthur Brauss).

Looking back on the premise, I do find it incompatible with how the sport is played.  The psychological pressure of a penalty kick lies almost entirely with the outfield player.  Ask Gareth Southgate about the pressure of attempting to make a penalty versus the pressure of trying to prevent one.  Nonetheless, this early effort by Wenders is excellent.

The Cup (1999) – Directed by Khyentse Norbu

This is a delightful little documentary that chronicles Orgyen Tobgyal, a young Tibetan child in India who dreams of representing Tibet in the World Cup. There is nothing exceptionally deep or groundbreaking about this film, but what struck me most was Orgyen’s genuine love and enthusiasm for the sport.  He loved to play and loved to watch.  At this age, he was incorruptible, and he served as a reminder that all of us can recall a moment when play itself was the greatest pleasure possible.

Looking for Eric (2009) – Directed by Ken Loach

This film proves to be a bit of a departure for Loach, who can make some pretty gritty and serious films.  Looking for Eric is a much more lighthearted affair.  Centered around a rather depressed working class postman who obsesses over Manchester United and its former French Star, Eric Cantona, Looking for Eric seems more attuned to the pop culture sensibilities of Nick Hornby than any of Loach’s previous work.  The dynamic Cantona emerges to provide guidance and life lessons to the postman, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets).

Though as a West Ham fan I cannot stand Eric Cantona, he is the perfect choice for such a film.  While a great player, Cantona’s legend is greater than his career, which was relatively short.  He retired at age 30.  And while he helped establish Man U’s dominance in the early days of the Premier League, he was well gone by the time that Man U became the name brand it is now.  He never won a Champions League trophy, World Cup, or Euro Cup.  The title that should have been his, greatest French footballer since Platini, went quickly to Zidane, who won the trophies that Cantona never did.  Yet despite a short career that lacks the accoutrements of other players, Cantona remains legendary, almost ghostlike.  He hovers about the game as if to remind us of the sport’s ephemeral nature. 

Cantona, playing himself in Looking for Eric, remains his elusive and mercurial self.  He is sought out by the other Eric because of his elusiveness.  Football fans were never able to satiate their appetite for Cantona and remain forever hungry to recapture him.  Loach’s film wonderfully captures the talisman Cantona.  

The Damned United (2009) – Directed by Tom Hooper

2009 was a good year for football films.  The Damned United focuses on another giant of English football, Brian Clough.  Clough managed various clubs during the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, most notably Nottingham Forest,  whom he helped guide to two European Cups.  (It is amazing to think that a club that reached the pinnacle of club football has been mired in the lower divisions of English football.)  This film, however, chronicles his tempestuous 44 day tenure as manager of Leeds United (another club that once mattered in English football). 

Michael Sheen plays the legendary gaffer.  Combined with his turns as Tony Blair and David Frost, Michael Sheen has solidified himself as a terrific British actor. In a world in which British actors take American roles and Australian and New Zealand actors take British roles, Sheen knows his place and restores balance. 

This Sporting Life (1963) – Directed by Lindsay Anderson

This is a stretch, I admit, but Rugby is technically football, which, during the second half of the nineteenth century, split into two forms: rugby football and association football (soccer).  Yet this is such a gorgeous, moving film that I felt compelled to include it.    Richard Harris plays an ambitious and brilliant rugby player, Frank Machin, who develops an interest in a recent widow played by Rachel Roberts.  Harris and Roberts both received Oscar nominations.  Harris, in particular, employs his physicality with a disarming charm.

The film’s most important storyline revolves around Machin’s relationship with Mrs. Hammond (Roberts), yet rugby, sport, and the monetization of sport (rather than the play of sport) circle around this relationship.  This Sporting Life‘s black and white photography and cinematography are magnificent.  The initial scenes of a rugby match are beautifully stylized.  They make no effort to replicate an actual match but rather display the beauty and brutality of sport through cinematic devices rather than athletic ones. In many ways these scenes have always struck me as a possible influence for Martin Scorsese’s boxing scenes in Raging Bull.    This Sporting Life is best film in my five favorites. 

Finally, I will go ahead and predict a 2-1 Barca victory over Man U.  Messi opens the scoring.  Rooney pulls one back, but Iniesta provides the winner in aet.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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