My Five: Football on Film

WORDS: DOMINIC O’KEY

Football and film have enjoyed a strange relationship. There have been some classics and more than a few travesties along the way, but Dominic O’Key has chosen his five top footballing motion pictures from around the world. We must warn you, however, that scene from Kes hasn’t made the cut…

Gregory's Girl

It’s over! The football is finished! What the hell are we going to do from now until mid-August?

I guess we could take up some hobbies, learn a new language, or nostalgically watch youtube compilations of Paul Scholes’s worst tackles in sweet catatonic bliss. But failing that, there’s always the great plethora of football films to fall back on. I’m sure Escape to Victory will be on TV one Sunday soon. And if it’s not, well, that’s also great, because it really sucks. Here’s a list of my five favourite football flicks…

Forza Bastia 

If you want to psyche yourself up for the not-too-distant new football season then look no further than Jacques Tati’s final (and unfinished) short film Forza Bastia. The 26-minute documentary oversees the 1978 UEFA Cup Final First Leg between SC Bastia and PSV Eindhoven. Yes, Bastia lost the final in the end, but that’s not the point. Sit back, relax and revel in the fans’ total dedication to their team. The small town is completely transformed, painted with a sea of blue and white. Hours before kick-off, the camera shows what cup fever really looks like: dogs dressed in home-knitted Bastia colours, children bursting with excitement; even the church steeple is adorned with the team’s flag.

Found, finished and edited in 2001 by Tati’s daughter Sophie, the film serves as a nostalgic love-letter to the highs and lows of being a fanatical footy fan. Very little of the match is filmed; nevertheless we are treated to close-ups of the eager crowd, whose faces reveal all we need to know about the match’s narrative. In the stadium, kids sneak over barbed wire to watch the game for free and grounds staff agonise over the waterlogged pitch, using sandbags to help absorb the water.

Tati’s camerawork is spot on throughout and makes poetry out of the everyday. There’s something incredibly beautiful about the way this little wonder comes together, revealing in its final shots the discarded litter in between stadium seats. Forza Bastia is available to watch on the above link, so make sure you do so; you won’t regret it.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) 

Zinédine Zidane is living proof that football isn’t just a silly game. You don’t believe me? Take a look at him. He’s fucking Shakespearean; a tragic hero as brilliant as he is dangerous. Ask Marco Materazzi if you’re still not convinced. And here, in this strange art-film directed by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, the hypnotic aura of Zidane is caught perfectly.

It’s 2005 and Real Madrid are entertaining Villarreal. With 17 synchronised cameras, we follow Zidane closely in real-time, all the way up until the 95th minute. It’s the logical conclusion of Sky Sports’s Player Cam, and infinitely better for it too. He struts, spits, drags his feet along the ground and effortlessly sets up a goal for Ronaldo. He gets involved in a stoppage-time brawl and is shown a red card.

Boasting a beautifully composed soundtrack by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, the movie has a brooding and mesmerising tone. It’s ambient but very involving. Subtitled on the screen, Zidane speaks philosophically about his childhood and his relationship with football: “When you step on to the field you can hear and feel the presence of the crowd. There is sound. The sound of noise.” To some, it’ll be nothing more than the sound of pretentiousness, but stick with it and I guarantee it’ll suck you in; this is a movie for football fans just as much as it is for film-lovers, so give it a chance. 

Substitute (2007) 

Keeping it unconventional for a little longer, we turn to Substitute. Throughout qualification for the 2006 World Cup, Vikash Dhorasoo played seven out of the ten group games for France, even bagging a goal against Cyprus in the stage’s final fixture. When the midfielder got the nod for the World Cup itself, he ended up making only two late substitute appearances. With such little time spent actually playing, Dhorasoo had a fair few hours on his hands. Nope, he didn’t whittle away the weeks drinking great German beer. Instead he made a film.

Substitute is a fascinating and deeply personal documentary, granting a VIP backstage pass to exactly what went on behind the scenes. Remember, these were the years of Raymond Domenech, the much criticised national team coach. The viewer tracks Dhorasoo in the real-life narrative of events. He wasn’t to know before the tournament that he would barely get a game, and hence we see his angsty, self-doubt as he speaks into the mirror. Shot with a super-8 camera, the movie has a grainy and amateur look, which suits its tone well.

Filled to breaking-point with ennui, and containing next to no actual football being played, rest assured that this is one of the most absurd films ever made about football. 

The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick (1971) 

Tom Hooper’s The Damned United did a great job of showing the sheer mental weight of being involved with professional football. It’s a biopic, a bromance and a fairy tale set amidst Midlands and Yorkshire suburbia. With Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall at its core, the film barely puts up a foot wrong. But it’s not quite as special as Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, or in English The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick.

In the film’s opening segment, our goalkeeper protagonist (Arthur Brauss) leans casually against the goalposts. His team are in possession, dominating up field, but with a sudden counter-attack he finds himself unready to deal with the oncoming offensive. The ball flies past him into the net. Protesting the goal for offside, he runs to the centre-spot and argues with the referee; he is sent off for his unsportsmanlike conduct. In the wake of his dismissal he roams the city, purposeless. Checking final scores in the papers and watching a movie in a nearby cinema, he spends the night with the cashier who sold him his ticket. In the morning, he murders her in an act of clinical, spontaneous brutality.

Goalkeeper is the second film by Wim Wenders, the master German director famed for Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas. It has a slow-burning pace but offers a fantastic insight into the Americanisation of Germany during the Cold War. What’s more, its final scene features a deep discussion of how monstrously terrifying a penalty kick is for your average goalie. Wenders’ film is impossible to find on DVD, but if you know German or Italian well enough then you can watch it here.

Gregory’s Girl (1981) 

Let’s finish with a classic. Bill Forsyth’s tender romcom sees lanky teen Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair) lose his place on the school team because, no thanks to his pubescence, his coordination is all a bit off. Tip-toeing his way across the pitch like Bambi on ice, he’s forced into being the goalie as someone better takes his outfield place. That someone is Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), and she is a girl.

Instead of resenting her ascendance, Gregory falls head-over-heels in love, and spends the film’s 91-minute running-length weighing up his chances. Is he cool enough? Can he dance? Is there a chance he could get any hot tips on how to impress the girlies from his ten-year-old sister? Unfortunately for Gregory, star-player Dorothy is wise beyond her years and isn’t really interested in him. She has some problems of her own, too; namely sexism from her male peers.

The film is set in an unnamed Scottish suburb and features some lovely scenes in public parks. Forsyth’s slightly whimsical touch is always close by, the best instance of which comes when Dorothy shows the boys how to trap the ball. Receiving the ball, stopping it and pivoting, the move quickly escalates into a disco-inspired dance routine that’s all kinds of awesome.

Combining narratives of unrequited love, teenage angst and gender equality, Forsyth’s movie captures the torments of adolescence while remaining utterly giggle-worthy. Add into the mix a dash of changing-room politics and a sprinkling of mazy runs on goal and you’re onto a winner. I’d recommend watching Gregory’s Girl in a double-header with the brilliant Bend it like Beckham (2002).

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6 thoughts on “My Five: Football on Film

  1. Neil Armando says:

    Surprised to see the neglect of mainstream Tibetan cinema – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0201840/‎ [Admin: link fixed]

  2. colubryn says:

    I agree with you on Gregory’s Girl and Zidane but you’ve got a few shocking omissions. What happened to:

    – Bend it Like Beckham – a great women’s football film.
    – Ken Loach’s Kes which contains the PE teacher’s scene. Probably the best football scene ever.
    – Finally again from Ken Loach how could you possibly over look Looking for Eric?

    I have put your post in a Colchester United fanzine available on tablets and smart phones through Flip board (the apple and android app) The Mighty U’s by Bryn Griffiths click here to find it …. http://flip.it/VkJTX

    • Dominic O'Key says:

      Hi Colubryn, this piece is a “My Five” one, so my only obligation is to write about my own five favourite football films. As you can see in my article I actually do mention ‘Bend it Like Beckham’, which I like very much, but I also don’t think it is *as* special as these others.

      • ColUBryn says:

        Touché and my five are my five so in the spirit of debate I can give my response. I liked your post and it set me thinking on my 5. Having said that no Looking for Eric! My no 1. What were you thinking?

  3. Bend it like Beckham is beyond awful.

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