Cover Story: FIFA World Cup 2018

Mise En Soccer

Rahul Desai is a film critic based in Mumbai. He writes for Film Companion and The Hindu
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Action and emotion merge seamlessly in football films

SECONDS AFTER SKIPPING across the ‘Water Mirror’—a concrete reflecting pool symmetrically dotted with misty water jets—I swerved into one of the several cobble- stoned streets of central Nice. The pubs of Place Messina were packed, the cafes overflowing. I was too late. From running on a liquid sky, I came barrelling down to commercial earth. As the 2014 FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and Germany kicked off at the distant Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, I found myself bundled up with other unfortunate latecomers against a vegetable truck. Each of us stretched, flexed and squinted to steal a glimpse of the adjacent bar’s oversized plasma screen.

One of them was a Portuguese backpacker who had been on the road for six months. She adored Cristiano Ronaldo, but cheered for Lionel Messi because Germany had demolished Portugal in the group stages. Another, a Chinese exchange student, rooted for Joachim Löw’s boys because his ex-girlfriend was half-Brazilian, and Germany had destroyed the South American giants 7-1 in the semi-final. Another was Norwegian; this was the first match he was watching after his country’s failed qualifying campaign. The driver, a heavy-set Parisian man, insisted that his late grandfather, once a prisoner in Nazi-occupied France, would have given anything to be in Rio that night.

Those 120 minutes, in hindsight, were impossibly cinematic. They were made up of moments that ‘World Cup cinema’ thrives on. It wasn’t just the game. Any one of us could have been the far-flung protagonist of a classic ‘football-fan’ film—the kind where the sheer universality of the quadrennial tournament drives a particular era’s sociopolitical narrative. The sport itself is barely seen or heard here; it serves, instead, as a romantic device that unites cultures, bridges generations and cements over the cracks of language.

We might have well been the girls from disparate backgrounds herded together in the holding pen of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, agonisingly close to the football action in Iranian master Jafar Panahi’s Offside. Set within the confines of a crucial World Cup 2006 qualifier between Iran and Bahrain, Offside is a clever snapshot of a country’s gender-distinct civil system through the eyes of five women arrested for trying to enter an ‘all-male’ arena. ‘Azadi’, ironically, means ‘freedom’. The film opens with a nervous girl who, disguised as a boy to fool the guards, breaks down at the prospect of being touched during security protocol. The camera initially follows her, conditioning us to mark her as the sole protagonist. The nearer she gets to the game, however, the lesser it becomes about a singular point of view; once she is caught, it occupies the general space shared by the frustrated girls. Panahi expertly employs the ‘suggestion’ of football the way horror-movie directors use jump scares— the anticipation, the sounds and rhythm of a tense match serve as the sensory grammar that connects everyone for one patriotic evening.

Ditto for Cao Hamburger’s Brazilian period drama, The Year My Parents Went On Vacation. The feeling of football acts as respite for a 12-year-old boy, Mauro, abandoned by his left-wing parents in a multi-ethnic São Paulo neighbourhood during the country’s oppressive military regime. It’s no coincidence that a kid who must survive on the hospitality of Jewish strangers aspires to be a goalkeeper—alone, waiting, fearing the worst in enemy territory. Even as the locality shields him, he waits for elusive phone calls, taxis and letters from a family on indefinite ‘vacation’. Set against the backdrop of Brazil’s Pelé-inspired run to the 1970 World Cup title, the real film occurs through his experiences on a turf that isn’t truly his.

The British documentary next goal wins is a remarkable example of how football is inherently a film about finding the right perspective

This template bridges the details of German director Sönke Wortmann’s The Miracle of Bern, too. We see a jittery post-war nation react to West Germany’s unlikely 1954 World Cup triumph through the eyes of a passionate 11-year-old boy from the town of the team’s star striker, Helmut Rahn. In the film’s finest scene, the boy’s ex-POW father dribbles on an empty pitch. He punctuates the moment by scissor-kicking the ball into a makeshift goal. This brief burst of energy helps him rediscover the young free man that once wanted to shoot balls into the net rather than bullets into bodies.

Another frontrunner in this genre is Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu’s 1999 Tibetan-language Phörpa (The Cup). The director, a Buddhist Lama himself, paints a beguiling ‘human’ picture of a religion that prides itself on transcending the excesses of humanity. Set within a Tibetan monastery- in-exile in the Himalayas, the quaint little story explores the friction between traditionalism and modernity by pivoting on the efforts of some young monastic students to secure a black-and- white television set to watch the 1998 World Cup final between Brazil and France. Whether it’s sporting a hand-painted No 9 vest under their robes, comparing their shaven heads to Ronaldo (“but he is no monk”), or rooting for other nations while being away from theirs, the boys make for a disarming access door into an ecosystem at the crossroads of evolution. Most of them are refugees who, like Mauro, are exported by their families for a safer future. “Two civilised nations fighting over a ball,” the Head Lama is told, on asking about the sport that invigorates the otherwise placid kids. “What do the countries get out of this?” he inquires further. “A Cup,” the warden replies, grinning, as he watches the Lama wryly sip on hot tea from a clay cup. It’s only inevitable that a movie made by a monk presents the idea of football in its most spiritual light yet.

The definitive image of football fever—that of remote fans desperately wrestling with technology on the outskirts of civilisation—is repeated in Gerardo Olivares sweeping multilingual comedy, La Gran Final (The Great Final). Not unlike the Buddhists, in a last-gasp bid to catch ‘reception’ for the 2002 World Cup final, representatives of three tribes from distant corners of the planet— the Mongolian steppe, Sahara desert and Amazon rainforests—find themselves atop solitary poles and 300-year-old trees punching the air hopefully with TV antennas. For a people whose identity transcends the concept of nationalism, it is somewhat therapeutic to see them freely cheer for a sport that officially ranks up to 210 countries. It’s this fleeting sense of inclusivity—both on the pitch and off it—that a truly perceptive sports movie recognises.

Football and films require an ability to operate against instinct, and yet produce a result that emulates the naturalism of instinct

There is, however, an unfiltered pureness that accompanies the sight of history being created, not recreated. The most affecting of them are stories that strip the beautiful game down to a messy desire. It’s why some of the aforementioned movies (Offside, Phörpa) are shot in a low-budget, docudrama format; this allows their environments to stylistically meld into our perception of the game’s controlled chaos. But it’s when the little films unravelling within the football become just as important as the football within films that the hallowed ‘World Cup’ starts to look a little more like the intimate Jules Rimet Trophy. By virtue of form, there is nothing like the non- fiction narrative to recognise this precise balance.

For instance, months before I struggled to watch the Rio final on a balmy French night, a documentary crew had followed the weakest football team in the world as it bravely attempted to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The heartwarming result, Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s Next Goal Wins, is a remarkable example of how football is inherently a film about finding the right perspective. This British documentary about the national team of American Samoa—an unincorporated US territory in the South Pacific—is the perfect manifestation of the fact that the most compassionate sports movies are, by design, movies about anything but sports.

Sample the littler films within: a traumatised goalie who spends nights shot-stopping on an Xbox after he let in a world-record 31 goals against Australia in a 2002 qualifier, a federation determined to heal an island still reeling from a tsunami, a winless team yet to score a goal after conceding 228 of them, the world’s first transgender footballer to play a men’s FIFA qualifier, the import of veteran Samoa-born semi-professionals at the twilight of their careers, an atheist coach out to slay his own personal demons while adapting to a religious culture, and a final derby between two low-ranked rival islands. These parts form a whole so rousing, so primal, that some of the criticism levelled at it singled out the ‘predictability’ of the tropes. When you call a documentary clichéd, you are essentially blaming life for imitating the movies. Which, in a way, is an unwitting compliment to its makers.

In a pep talk before a do-or-die game, the team’s Dutch coach, once a journeyman footballer in Amsterdam, spurs them on with an inelegant speech that outlines the privilege of opportunity. “I’d have cut off my penis to play a World Cup qualifier,” he declares. Without an ounce of irony, he then smiles at the transgender defender, Jaiyah Saelua, only days after he anointed her ‘Woman of the Match’ in American Samoa’s first-ever international victory. Unlike previous coaches, he refuses to use her birth name (Johnny) while gesticulating to his players on the pitch. Next Goals Wins is the rare kind of inclusive documentary in which one suspects that such moments might have existed—as they do, across the globe, even as you read this—even if the cameras weren’t on them. They happen despite the coverage and not because of it.

Set within the confines of a World Cup 2006 qualifier between Iran and Bahrain, offside is a clever snapshot of a country's gender-distinct civil system through the eyes o five young women

In contrast, around the time goalie Nicky Salapu conceded 31 goals to the Socceroos, another Dutchman, Johan Kramer, counted on the power of a camera to ‘create’ the story of his documentary, The Other Final. Disappointed by Netherlands’ failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, Kramer was so disillusioned with the notion of competition that he conceived a parallel narrative to counter the exclusivity of the elite FIFA tournament. He arranged for two of the lowest-ranked nations to play a friendly on the day Brazil faced Germany in the final at Japan’s Yokohama stadium. And so Bhutan, ranked 201, took on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, ranked 202, at Thimphu’s Changlimithang Stadium in ‘the worst match in the world’.

It’s not the teams but the prospect of the match itself that becomes the underdog. Six months of preparation, resigning coaches, delayed flights and several setbacks later, the winning moment occurs even before a ball is kicked: after a 40-hour journey, the tall, strapping and exhausted Montserrat players step onto Bhutanese tarmac to the tune of their calypso anthem, Hot Hot Hot. A night later, they belt out the classic on stage at a formal function, while their pint-sized opponents look amused, presumably pondering their different perceptions of Gross National Happiness.

The film constructs the ‘event’ of football through these two endearing teams—showcasing the game as a melting pot of sociocultural interaction rather than a clash of action. It even paints the actual World Cup as something of a capitalist villain, dwelling over the refusal of Nike and Adidas to sponsor their modest kits. “Japan may have 528 loudspeakers to our one today, but we both have two goal posts,” an official remarks, before adding that spectators can watch this historic match free of charge. The 4-0 score line—Bhutan’s first official victory—becomes a side note. The trophy is, quite literally, split into half.

And yet, an hour after the game, the ground is empty. The excitable voices of television commentators waft out of the town’s windows into its deserted streets. Cheers spill into the air. Ronaldo has scored, in ‘The Other Final’.

It’s this unlikely fusion of cultures that also defines the BBC documentary, The Game of Their Lives. Not to be confused with the middling Gerard Butler starrer about a ragtag American team that upsets arrogant England in the 1950 World Cup, Daniel Gordon’s 2002 film enters modern-day North Korea—a cinematic peg, if there was ever one—to chronicle the story of the famous team that defeated Italy to reach the 1966 World Cup quarter-final. A combination of archival footage and interviews throws us back to a time when, for two weeks in the swinging 60s, North Korea defied diplomatic convention to become the most popular country on the planet.

It’s a little unnerving to see the surviving members shed loyal tears for Kim Il-sung, the deceased ‘Supreme Leader’ who had demanded a memorable performance in England. But they drop their guard as soon as they step into a stadium. The glow on their faces intermittently cuts through notoriously regimented personalities as they reminisce about the clever through balls and adoring English fans. The best parts of the film humanise the young Korean players—we see genuine wonder in their eyes, while the industrial towns of Middlesbrough and Liverpool embrace them as the ‘home team’ and chant their names in stadiums whose administrations had marked their qualification to be a bad precedent that might encourage other Eastern trenches of communism. All it took was a ball, and a camera tracing it.

It's when the little films unravelling within the football become as important as the football within films that the hallowed 'Would Cup' starts to look a little more like the intimate Jules Rimet Trophy

Then there are the tragedies. The stories of how not even World Cup football could withstand a country’s cultural crisis. Before they made the frightfully stereotypical biopic, Pele: Birth of a Legend , Jeff and Michael Zimbalist pieced together the toxic puzzle of 90s Colombian football in their effective ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The Two Escobars. A few years before Netflix series Narcos delved deep into the legacy of drug-lord Pablo Escobar, the Zimbalists circled the other dimension of his regime—‘narco-soccer’—through their masterfully assembled film. By juxtaposing the rise and fall of the ‘bad’ Escobar with that of the good one, star defender Andrés Escobar, the makers reveal the fragility of a game so beautiful that it inadvertently seduces everybody from gangsters to politicians.

The sport becomes a reluctant symbol, torn between being abused and used. Narco-terrorists abuse the ‘business’ of Colombian football by employing it as a money-laundering device, while a defiant president uses the same national team to soothe a violent nation in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup. When Andrés, the captain, accidentally turns the ball into his own net against hosts USA, the film presents an unforgettable image. His face. He knows, right then, that his team isn’t the only thing that is going to be eliminated. The soft-spoken, religious Colombian superstar wears the look of a soft-spoken, religious Brazilian superstar who had, not long ago, woken up in Italy with a similar sense of foreboding. Eventually, Andrés Escobar was killed only two months after the death of F1 great Ayrton Senna.

On a milder level, it’s this sinking feeling that engulfs the private space of England manager Graham Taylor in the British Channel 4 documentary, An Impossible Job. A crew traces his reign during England’s doomed qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup. We see long stretches of Taylor reacting to every tackle in real time, like an exasperated football fan stuck in the dugout. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for a man who is hounded so heavily in those 18 months that Princess Diana sent him a thank-you note for distracting the paparazzi. The fly-on-the- wall documentary, ironically, uses the gaze of a rabid media lens; the very cameras out to immortalise him end up sealing Taylor’s footballing mortality.

The film, often hailed as a ‘black comedy’, is so embedded into English conscience that it resulted in the biting satire, Mike Bassett: England Manager, less than a decade later. The unsparing mockumentary tries to ‘correct’ history, too, by making the incompetent manager lead the team to not only qualify through a stroke of dumb luck but also reach the (fictitious) World Cup semi-final against all odds.

In this context, I wonder if a crew stalked Italian coach Gian Piero Venturo as his team stumbled out of contention earlier this year. Heck, I hope one is shadowing the Icelandic team right now; the Viking war chant might make for a rousing soundtrack. I wonder if a few more disgruntled Dutch entrepreneurs have been driven to look further outward— maybe arrange for the first-ever international in Antarctica to coincide with the Moscow final.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate that football and films form the most organic of unions. In one, the legs do what the hands are designed to do. In the other, the camera does what the eyes are designed to do. Both mediums require an inherent ability to operate against instinct, and yet produce a result that emulates the naturalism of instinct.

Maybe it’s also no coincidence that the first talkie was released in 1927, three years before the first World Cup match in 1930. Because when hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia in the first match of the 21st FIFA World Cup, you can be sure that the stories began a while before the opening whistle. Some might have begun the moment Mario Götze’s extra-time volley hit the back of the net in Rio—not least his own, about a debilitating muscle disorder and pressures of the spotlight. And others, when Jaiyah Saelua made a heroic last-gasp clearance in the dying seconds of American Samoa’s first triumph.

Either way, come June 14th, two worlds of art are set to renew their vows: football will find a home on the big screen, and cinema will find a home on the fields of Russia.

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