Why is there no great Hollywood soccer movie?


Graham King has worked with countless A-listers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Jack Nicholson, Cameron Diaz and Daniel-Day Lewis, to name just a few. But ask the Oscar-winning producer of “The Departed” which celebrities made him giddy like a star-struck teen, and he won’t mention any actor, saying instead it was the players from the Chelsea FC soccer team.

The day the English-born filmmaker won the best picture Academy Award for “The Departed,” King awoke before dawn to watch his beloved soccer squad defeat Arsenal in the Carling Cup final (one friend says it was a sweeter victory for King than his Oscar triumph over “Little Miss Sunshine”). King has hurried off the American set of several of his films on a Friday, flown to England to see a Chelsea match, and been back in the States before cameras rolled Monday morning. King interrupted his 2008 Cannes Film Festival stay to share a private jet to Moscow for the Champions League Final between Chelsea and Manchester United (Chelsea, King’s team since age 4, lost in a shootout).

King’s passion for the beautiful game is shared by many inside Hollywood — directors, studio executives, actors and other producers. But for all of the industry’s most devoted soccer supporters, the movie business has yet to make what anybody considers a definitive mainstream movie about the sport, an especially glaring omission on the eve of the World Cup, opening Friday in South Africa.

Boxing might have “Raging Bull” and “Rocky,” baseball “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams,” football “North Dallas Forty” and “The Longest Yard,” basketball “ Hoosiers,” ice hockey has “Miracle” and “Slap Shot,” and even billiards has “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money.”

When it comes to soccer, though, the sport’s most memorable Hollywood movie probably has been Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Pelé’s cheesy 1981 World War II drama “Victory” — only a marginally better treatment of the sport, in some detractors’ view, than “Happy Gilmore” was for golf.

Movie critics (and some art-house film patrons) have embraced several independent movies with strong soccer settings, including “Bend It Like Beckham,” “The Damned United” and the recent “Looking for Eric.” Documentary filmmakers have delivered a few acclaimed soccer films, including “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos” and the new “After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United.”

It’s not so much that the big studios don’t make good soccer movies, it’s that they don’t really make them at all. When 20th Century Fox adapted Nick Hornby’s book “Fever Pitch,” the subject sport was changed from soccer (the Arsenal Football Club) to baseball (the Boston Red Sox). Universal Pictures is developing “The Fugees,” a movie about refugee kids who play soccer in Atlanta, but that’s a rare exception to the rule.

It’s not as though a lot of people don’t love the game, particularly around the World Cup, the every-four-years global soccer championship.

The television audience for all soccer matches in the last World Cup exceeded 26 billion, with nearly 12% of the globe’s population watching the final game between Italy and France (Italy won the match on penalty kicks). There are more than 50,000 American Youth Soccer Organization teams in the United States, representing more than 650,000 AYSO players.

But soccer interest pretty much vanishes when the nation’s studios decide which features they want to greenlight. It took shoe maker Adidas to finance the three-film “Goal! The Dream Begins” soccer movie series, none of which were box-office hits. When the big studios make a soccer film, it’s often a goofy comedy like “Kicking & Screaming.”

Soccer’s most fervent fans in and around Hollywood, many of whom are British and insist on calling the game football, offer a variety of explanations for the shutout: It’s not an indigenous sport, and the World Cup has none of the domestic cultural relevance of the Super Bowl or the World Series. The game is distinguished by split-second athleticism that can’t easily be re-created on screen. Scoring can be low or even nonexistent. Football, baseball and basketball are episodic sports with countless pauses to discuss strategy and set plays, but soccer is an uninterrupted 90-minute slog. Actors can’t effectively fake playing the game. Moviegoers would rather watch the real thing.

Studio executives “think soccer is for some suburban mom with a 4-year-old,” says Joe Roth, who ran Disney, Fox and Revolution Studios and is also the majority owner of the Seattle Sounders, a new (and so far incredibly popular) Major League Soccer team. He believes Hollywood’s anti-soccer bias is rooted in a fear (and ignorance) of what’s foreign. “We’re basically a xenophobic country and don’t look at what’s going on in the rest of the world as closely as we should,” Roth says.

Roth, who is consulting on a biographical film in early development based on the Brazilian soccer great Pelé, says that the sport is well-suited to filmmaking. “It’s a hard sport to show on television, but a much easier sport to stage on film,” he says.

Not everybody agrees.

“I don’t think the two go together,” Ken Loach, the director of “Looking for Eric,” says of the soccer-movie combination. His film stars former Manchester United goal-scoring legend Eric Cantona in a story about how a soccer-obsessed, down-on-his-luck British postal carrier’s life is restarted when he is visited by Cantona, who plays himself. “A film has its own narrative — they have different rhythms,” Loach says.

If you’ve noticed that Kevin Costner doesn’t display a perfect golf swing in “Tin Cup” or that Tommy Lee Jones can’t really swing a bat in “Cobb,” you know how easy it is to spot actors trying to be athletes. When Gavin O’Connor cast “Miracle,” a drama about the gold-medal-winning U.S. ice hockey team in the 1980 Olympics, he cast real hockey players who could act, rather than actors who might vaguely know how to skate and shoot a puck. More often than not — in a business driven by star casting — it’s the other way around.

“But you can’t replicate that level of skill,” says Stephen Frears, the British director of “The Queen” and “Dangerous Liaisons” and a supporter of Arsenal. “There’s so much coverage of the game now that trying to fake it is very difficult. It’s daunting. You are never going to make a soccer film as good as the real thing.”

David Anspaugh, the American director of the classic sports films “Hoosiers” and “Rudy,” also made 2005’s “The Game of Their Lives,” a drama about how the American squad upset England in 1950’s World Cup in Brazil. Though some say it’s among the better soccer movies around, Anspaugh says money woes kept him from making the film he set out to direct. “A lot of the good parts of the film we had to cut out,” he says.

But Anspaugh says he was determined to make the soccer match look as authentic as possible, auditioning about 6,000 people for the film and populating his cast with legitimate players, including actors Jimmy Jean-Louis and Richard Jenik, and brought in former U.S. pros Eric Wynalda and John Harkes as soccer consultants. “Will someone make a great movie in the future with soccer as a canvas? Absolutely,” Anspaugh says. “And it won’t be that long from now.”

Some remain skeptical, particularly because soccer is often subtle in its action and its play is defined by individual brilliance as well as intangible team chemistry.

“In soccer, things happen on the spur of the moment, the blink of the eye,” says Daniel Battsek, the former head of Miramax Films (which distributed the documentary “Once in a Lifetime”) and who is the new president of National Geographic Films. The British-born studio executive says that American football, with more set plays and team maneuvers, is far easier to capture cinematically.

A lifetime Chelsea fan, Battsek says director Gurinder Chada’s “Bend it Like Beckham” accurately depicted what it means to be a soccer fanatic. “It captured the spirit of the game — it helped make Americans understand how all-encompassing football is, that it’s the greatest game on the planet,” he says.

Chada, who was born in Kenya but grew up in England amid fans of Tottenham Hotspur, spent three years trying to get financing for her movie about Jess, an Indian teenage girl smitten with soccer and then-Manchester United star David Beckham. Spurning her conservative family’s wishes, Jess (Parminder Nagra) secretly starts playing on a women’s soccer team with Jules ( Keira Knightley). Neither Nagra nor Knightley were accomplished players (“But do people really think Harrison Ford can jump out of a helicopter?” Chada asks); she surrounded them with passionate young female athletes so that the film’s matches not only looked authentic but were.

But Chada said that focusing too narrowly on the sport itself is to lose sight of the objective. “Sometimes, the problem with sports movies is that you get too caught up with the sport and forget that sport is a metaphor,” she says. Like other affecting sports movies, “Bend It Like Beckham” is ultimately less about soccer than it is about the people playing it: a character story, not a sports film.

“One of the greatest boxing movies was ‘Raging Bull’ and yet it wasn’t really about boxing. It was about this amazing character,” says British actor Ray Winstone, who is so committed to soccer (he’s a supporter of West Ham United) that he will spend most of June in South Africa with several dozen friends on a World Cup bender.

That raises an almost existential question: Are great sports movies really about the sport itself? Isn’t “Field of Dreams” ultimately a father-son story? Is “Hoosiers” a study of an underdog Indiana high school basketball team, or a redemption tale about a coach and the town drunk? At its center, isn’t “Bend It Like Beckham” a tale of girl power?

“Looking for Eric” director Loach (a supporter of the second-tier Bath City Football Club) says one of the central ideas in his film is that we are much stronger as a collective than we are individually, that we can turn to other people to help our “becoming the people we want to be.”

There might be a fantastically talented soccer star at the center of Loach’s film, but when Cantona is asked to describe the greatest moment in his playing career, he replies that it wasn’t a goal but a pass to a teammate.