Football has a venerable history as a rich and suggestive subject matter for cinema. It has variously served as a metaphor for human struggle, a way of figuring themes like ambition and perseverance in the face of adversity, as a way of expressing social and cultural identities on screen, and as a vehicle for broad, farcical comedy. The beautiful game is nowhere more beautiful than in cinematic narrative.
In honour of the launch of the 2014 World Cup, we’ve compiled a list of our favourite football moments on film, each of which offers up a different perspective on this unique and magical sport.Next Goal Wins (2014)
Next Goal Wins is a new documentary about the "world’s worst national football team", American Samoa. They famously once lost to Australia 31-0, and they haven’t risen from the bottom of the world rankings for years. Next Goal Wins follows the team as they attempt to do something about their woeful record and it’s a beautiful and uplifting film about an underdog team’s struggle to succeed. In this clip the team give a stirring rendition of their national anthem ahead of their qualifying match against Tonga. Escape to Victory (1981)
The final scene in Escape to Victory is one of the most accurately realised football sequences in cinema. Usually these sequences are over-choreographed and awkward, but John Huston’s cast of sporting actors and veteran footballers (among them Bobby Moore and Pelé) carry off this scene with aplomb, not to mention rousing patriotic zeal. At its close, the Allied team, composed of prisoners of war from various countries, draws with the Nazis 4-4, but they manage to score a silent goal against their opponents by seizing the opportunity to escape. Dead Poets Society (1989)
Anyone who’s been through the English school system will know that there are two kinds of people in this world: people who read books and people who play sport, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Dead Poets Society debunks that myth and shows us that sport and literature, and in particular poetry, are both engaged in the same project: the triumphant affirmation of the human spirit. In this scene, Mr Keating, an inspirational English teacher at the conservative Welton Academy, and himself a former captain of the school’s football team, leads his class in an exercise that unites poetry and sport, making his students recite affirmative lines from Whitman, before striking the ball as hard as they can. The Two Escobars (2010)
The Two Escobars is a documentary about one of the most notorious crimes in football history: the killing of Columbian defender Andrés Escobar two weeks after he scored an own goal against the USA in the 1994 World Cup. The motive behind the killing was unknown – some say that it was just a product of escalating violence in Columbia at the time, others argue that it was committed in response to a number of drug lords losing large amounts of money on bets after Columbia lost the match. Directors Jeff and Mike Zimbalist draw a direct connection between the murder and the drug trade and examine it against the rise of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. In this clip, the scene is set with the own goal and its direct aftermath being considered. The Great Game (1945)The Great Game is a wonderful short film made by the British Council during the World War II. It was part of a larger series of propaganda films that were designed to refute the image of Britain that was being touted by the Nazis, as a backward and oppressive country whose culture was stuck in the past. The Great Game heads off these charges by presenting an element of British culture that is democratic, vibrant and classless: football. The Great Game celebrates football as a people’s sport, as much about the popular customs and traditions that surround it as it is about the stars on the pitch. It gives an insight into a time when football was relatively untainted by celebrity culture and big money; when it was a much more congenial affair than the ruthlessly professionalised game it is today. And when it was also apparently a viable career move for a retired national footballer to become a public school chaplain (1:41). Maradona (2008)
This clip is from a remarkable documentary about Diego Maradona by the Serbian film maker Emir Kusturica. After his retirement from football, Maradona was much beleaguered by public scandals, and this film offers an insight into the life of a man who is both one of football’s greatest heroes and most complicated characters. In this scene Maradona himself gets on stage at a nightclub to give a rendition of ‘La Mano de Dios’, a song written about him by the Argentinian singer Rodrigo. The music is overlaid by footage from his past life, juxtaposing scenes of him playing with his children with scenes of him being arrested on drug charges. It encapsulates something of the unique status Maradona holds in the Argentinian public imagination, as both a morally ambivalent figure and a great national hero.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
The football match in Bedknobs and Broomsticks is wonderful for its sheer brutality: hyenas are mauled by kangaroos, cheetahs have fistfights with lions and poor old David Tomlinson just gets brutalised by everyone. It’s conceivable that this might be a parody of hooliganism in football, but it’s more probably just a wanton display of violence.
If you ask someone what Trainspotting is about, chances are they won’t say football. But it’s still an important aspect of the film. From the famous football vs shopping scene in the nightclub, to Renton’s switching of Tommy and Lizzy’s sex tape with a video tape entitled '100 Greatest Goals', football is deeply embedded in these characters’ lives and in their cultural world. In this clip, the famous opening sequence, shots of Renton et al shooting up and evading the police are interspersed with them playing football. It says something important about the bond between these characters – that although they are junkies who have dropped out of society, they’re still part of a team.
As an antidote to the slickness of the game-play in Escape to Victory, the final scenes of Hotshot offer up a gloriously camp and overwrought football sequence. In this clip, the fiery young gun Jamie Kristidis scores with an improbable bicycle kick to win back both the game, and his disapproving parents. Meanwhile Pelé, who plays the young boy’s mentor Santos, goes wild for his protégé’s success. Toe-curling stuff, in a good way.
Shaolin Soccer (2001)
Shaolin Soccer follows Sing, a former Shaolin monk who decides to teach society about the benefits of Shaolin kung-fu by blending the ancient art with football. Here we see Sing’s newly formed Shaolin team meet the more established Team Puma, and utterly trounce them with their baffling tactics. Think Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon meets Chinese minor league football.
Text by Max Fletcher