Lights! Camera! Goalmouth action!

It may be the beautiful game, but until now football has proved to be resolutely uncinematic. Though sports such as baseball, horse racing and American football have all inspired classic movies, soccer has wallowed conspicuously in Hollywood’s second division.

Last Sunday, Clint Eastwood’s boxing movie Million Dollar Baby scooped seven Oscars.
By comparison, the few memorable roles football has produced range from the quirky, like Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham, to the plainly absurd: Sylvester Stallone in Escape to Victory. Ricky Tomlinson was never in the running for a gong with Mike Bassett: England Manager.

Yet this could be about to change. With the release this year of an unprecedented number of films about the game, it appears that Hollywood is finally waking up to the appeal of the world’s most popular sport.

The most ambitious project started shooting at Pinewood and Newcastle in January and aims to be in cinemas by the end of the year. Goal! is the brainchild of first-time producer Mike Jefferies, a former internet entrepreneur who has recently been linked with a takeover bid for Liverpool.

“Movies that are sports-related are very expensive to shoot,” says Jefferies, who raised £15,6-million for his film. “Part of our ability to get the type of cash that can do justice to football is that we were able to tap into the fact that the sport is significantly hot enough in the States.

“Every studio head we went to see — and we met them all — had kids who play football. Now they get it over there. They understand the potential is enormous.”

Goal! hopes to have global appeal by showing the fortunes of a Latino player from Los Angeles going to the Premiership. A sequel in the Spanish Liga will be filmed this year and the trilogy will end with its hero at next year’s World Cup.

The screenplay was written by the Auf Wiedersehen Pet veterans Dick Clement and Ian le Frenais, and Danny Cannon, who directed Judge Dredd, is now in charge after the more celebrated director, Michael Winterbottom, was removed from the project for his “creative differences”.

Goal! has been a high-profile project since it won the backing of Adidas and — for the first time — Fifa, who were attracted by the promise of expanding into new markets.

“We sat down with [Fifa’s president Sepp] Blatter to establish a quid pro quo,” says Jefferies. “We want access in the broadest sense. In return we will give you exposure, particularly in the Americas and Asia.”

Another project, with a similar name and plot, is also scheduled to start filming this year. In The Goal — a $16-million picture executive-produced by the occasional Arsenal fan Spike Lee — a footballer from the slums of Rio (played by the sitcom star Mario Lopez) goes to the United States, where he becomes the world’s best player.

Goal! and The Goal both hope to use the celebrity cachet of top players to attract audiences. The former has announced the participation of Alan Shearer, David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane, and the latter hopes to enlist the Brazilian national team.

“Everybody is trying to tap into a market: the US,” says Michael Gubbins, editor of Screen International. “Football is one of the truly global games, yet there is a great hole in there — and that happens to be the US, which is the centre of film.”

Though Americans have yet to embrace professional football, the world of soccer moms — the suburban junior leagues — is an established part of the cultural landscape.

In Kicking & Screaming, to be released in September, this milieu will become the setting for a Hollywood movie for the first time. The comedy is a vehicle for Will Ferrell, who plays the coach of a team in competition with another team run by Robert Duvall, himself no stranger to football films having played the coach of a small Scottish team in 2000’s The Cup (known in South Africa as A Shot at Glory) alongside Ally McCoist.

With the growth of football films, a new position on set has become necessary — football choreographer. Kicking & Screaming hired Simon Clifford, the boss of a Leeds-based chain of soccer schools, who was responsible for teaching Keira Knightly her tricks in Bend It Like Beckham.

“One of the reasons football films have been embarrassing is that they hired actors who couldn’t play football,” says Clifford. “Either you cast people who are already footballers — which is what Jefferies has done — or you invest the time in preparation. With Keira Knightly we spent four months training every day.”

For many filmmakers, the success of Bend It Like Beckham — which grossed $32-million in the US — was a turning point for the sport in cinema. “It empowered us. It told us we didn’t need to shy away from football,” says Lexi Alexander, whose film about hooliganism, The Yank, is due for release in August. “Football is a great environment for a movie because there is such passion for it and so much adrenalin.”

In The Yank — which will be called Hooligans in the US — Elijah Wood plays the role of a Harvard dropout who goes to London and gets involved with a West Ham gang.

It was filmed at Upton Park, where Wood endeared himself to members of the local “firms”.

Author and hooligan expert Cass Pennant worked as a consultant: “I had a few lads who would take the piss out of the hobgoblin. But he won them over. He was very serious. His fans will be horrified to see their idol covered in blood.”

Hollywood often uses sporting success as a metaphor for the American dream. The US football team’s most remarkable victory happened more than half a century ago, when they beat England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

That match is the subject of Game of Their Lives, due out in the US next month. The movie begins with Patrick Stewart, as the veteran journalist Dent McSkimming, reminiscing about the match to the real-life teenage football prodigy Freddy Adu.

Perhaps the most unexpected casting decision was to give the only speaking role in the England team — that of Stan Mortensen — to Gavin Rossdale, the lead singer of the British rock band Bush.

Gubbins wonders whether it is possible to make a truly global film about football since every country has its own attitudes to the game.

“I love Clement and Le Frenais,” he says. “But it suggests to me that Goal! will be wry British humour, which is not necessarily going to do something in the US or internationally.”

Jefferies disagrees: “What did you want to be when you were a little boy? A footballer. It’s a common, international, non-religious, non-denominational dream.”

One country where football is synonymous with national identity is Brazil. Bafta-winner Walter Salles is developing the script of Linha de Passe, about four brothers, one of whom becomes a footballer.

Another factor in the spate of football films is the proximity of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

It was announced this month that the Berlin film festival and the German Football Association will produce a portmanteau film about football, including vignettes directed by Kenneth Branagh, Emir Kusturica, Jean-Jacques Beneix and Werner Herzog, to be shown as part of the World Cup celebrations next year.

Lastly, Michael Apted, the British director of Gorillas in the Mist, has recently signed up to direct a documentary about globalisation and football, which will follow stories in eight different countries. — Â

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