With another month about to be dominated by dudes kicking a ball around, let’s look at the times that film made football cool
Just when you thought the football season was over, it’s subbed back onto the field, turning a match-free summer into one dominated by Euro 2016 – it’s not even the World Cup, so what’s the point? Let’s face it, football is an addiction that chews up time better allocated to something of more substance, like films. Heading a football supposedly kills a few brain cells, but don’t forget the damage inflicted upon the spectator’s intelligence.
Above all, football is terrible to watch. The cinematography’s abysmal, the lighting lacks subtlety, and you’re lucky if the ball’s in play for 60 out of the 90 minutes. As for the golden rule of “show don’t tell”, commentators talk over the whole thing with the most clichéd dialogue possible. Nevertheless, it’s not all bad – arthouse cinema knows how to depict football as a universal language. Just take a look.
OFFSIDE (Jafar Panahi, 2006)
The immediacy of sports is unrivalled. Even a surprise Beyoncé album depends on your broadband speed. With Iran on the brink of World Cup qualification, five girls disguise themselves as boys to sneak into a stadium that outlaws female entry; when they’re caught before kickoff and kept inside a fence like cattle, they don’t give up without a fight. Not only does Panahi’s vibrant comedy elaborate on the absurdity of his country’s strictness, he smuggled the young women past authorities in order to shoot their scenes. It’s the director’s last film before the government placed him under house arrest with a ban on filmmaking, but like the girls of Offside, he found a way through the net.
THE GOALKEEPER’S FEAR OF THE PENALTY KICK (Wim Wenders, 1972)
Long-distance runners aside, the loneliest sportsperson is a goalkeeper who’s not needed and confined to the penalty box. In the opening minutes, Wenders fixes the camera on a shot-stopper who’s so bored, he’s more preoccupied with a necking couple in the stands. When he commits murder a few scenes later, there’s no explanation; let’s assume it’s the pent-up humiliation of fishing a ball out of the net whenever he concedes. With the police on the chase, his decision on which direction to flee mirrors the psychological battle of facing a penalty – except Wenders’ crime-thriller version has more of a kick.
ZIDANE: A 21ST CENTURY PORTRAIT (Douglas Gordon, Philippe Parreno, 2006)
Whether it’s the left or right foot, Zinedine Zidane is a player whose grace on the ball mirrors that of a balding ballerina with a long-standing grudge. For a whole 90-minute game, 17 cameras follow the playmaker as he falls into the sport’s competitive rhythms. Mogwai’s instrumental soundtrack adds a hypnotic layer, as does the general drone from the fans, and you too feel what it’s like to have a stadium of strangers gawp at you – and also how easy it is to block them out. Ever the showman, Zidane plays up to the cameras with a red card towards the end, and thus completes a man of the match performance.
TOGETHER (Lukas Moodysson, 2000)
Moodysson includes a joke in We Are the Best! where a schoolgirl complains her PE teacher is a fascist for dividing them into teams, but in Together, football is the visual representation of socialism in harmony. When the film’s hippy commune experiment resolves all its tensions, the squabbling families put aside their differences (mainly who’s less bourgeois than the other) for a kick-about in the back garden. Of course, that all changes in We Are the Best! with the its anthem of “Hate the Sport!”, but here, the friendly match plays out to ABBA’s ‘SOS’ – a terrace anthem every fan can chant along to.
SHAOLIN SOCCER (Stephen Chow, 2001)
“We just wanted to play soccer, not fight a war.” “Soccer is war. Remember that.” Martial arts are supposed to be inherently non-violent – it’s something you always hear but don’t really believe. To educate the sceptics, Chow stars in his own cartoonish comedy which translates kung fu to a more a dynamic formation of football. Infused with the tactics of Shaolin, an acrobatic team out-kick and out-leap their opponents to victory. Of course, it’s fantasy; otherwise, Hong Kong would have won a World Cup by now, and Eric Cantona wouldn’t have been sent off for kung fu kicking a fan.
MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2016)
In the feminist fairytale of Mustang, the Turkish sisters receive their wish to go to the ball – and they get to see one scored too. Upon hearing a stadium has banned men for violent behaviour, Lale and her housebound siblings hitchhike to a match that plays out like wish fulfilment: the party atmosphere of the stands is pure fantasy and explodes with the ecstasy of teenage rebellion. It’s a reminder that zoning out during a football match is a time-killing activity that everyone, regardless of gender, should have the right to suffer through.
LOOKING FOR ERIC (Ken Loach, 2009)
From The Golden Vision to the PE scene of Kes, Loach has always had an eye on the ball, and here he redoes Play It Again, Sam with Eric Cantona in the Humphrey Bogart role. Eric Bishop may be a postman with the blues, but deep inside, he’s a full-on Red (coincidentally, his blood is red too) with a life commitment to Man Utd. Amidst a breakdown, he’s saved by a guardian angel, Mr Ooh-Ah Cantona himself, who declares “I am not a man, I am Cantona.” It’s a mantra that only resonates if your name is Cantona, but it’s inspiring nonetheless.
THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
By far the Argentine thriller’s most riveting passage of play is an Iñárritu-esque tracking shot occurring on and off the field. Two detectives know about a suspected murderer’s passion for football, and so they track him down in the stands supporting his favourite team. Once the foot-chase evolves into a frantic sprint, it’s all about avoiding drunk, obnoxious fans blocking pathways, and not getting distracted by the scoreline. Despite the many surrounding exits, the wanted man takes a wrong turn and ends up on the field. At least he’s a pitch invader with a backstory.
TOMBOY (Céline Sciamma, 2011)
Sciamma’s LGBT coming-of-ager is epitomised in a two-minute football scene that plays out like a gender-fluid Gregory’s Girl. 10-year-old Laurie is desperate to be one of the boys, and has the short haircut to convince the playground kids she is one. Assuming the identity of Mikäel, the tomboy giddily dribbles past unsuspecting opponents, until she’s eventually brave enough to play shirtless. Meanwhile, Lisa watches from the sidelines (because girls aren’t encouraged to join in) with a crush on Laurie, unaware she’s not a boy. In a fascinating meditation on identity at a young age, the innocent game of football just happens to be the backdrop.
TIMBUKTU (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2015)
Sissako’s astonishing humanist drama examines life in Timbuktu once the city is taken over by jihadi extremists. All sports, alongside many simple pleasures, are banned on behalf of sharia law, but there’s a loophole: how can you ban what’s not there? As a sign of defiance, a few imaginative locals get kitted up to play a game with an imaginary ball for what’s actually a decent match. Sure, there’s a donkey interrupting a penalty kick and it’s all a “Spot the Ball” competition, but the protest’s theatricality ensures the beautiful game is actually beautiful for once.