Sunday, September 24, 2006

What Bad Football Films Say About National Football Cultures

In the company of my football-insatiable 9-year old (who, as I write, is watching Newcastle-Everton, which sounds like the seventh circle of hell to me), I have had cause to watch two really bad (is there any other kind?) football movies, Victory and Goal!. In between cliches, it occurred to me that the two movies - one English (even if it was directed by John Huston!) and the other American - say a lot about football cultures on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Victory is very loosely based on the Dynamo Kiev death match of 1942 (see here for more). In the middle of WWII, a crack German XI plays an all-star POW team, which through disbelief so suspended as to actually be levitating, includes (among others) Ossie Ardilles, Bobby Moore, Co Prins and Pele. Oh, and Sylvester Stallone. Captaining this lot is former England and West Ham great John Colby, played by professional cockney Michael Caine.

For me, the greatest moment in the movie (after the bit where Stallone saves a penalty and then in a moment of wild joy actually carries the ball over his own goal line), is an exchange between the fair-play minded obergruppenfuhrer Max von Sydow (himself an alleged former international) and Caine. Sydow invites Caine to a match against a local wehrmacht squad - Caine refuses unless - unless - he can choose enlsited men and not just officers. "I want a decent team," he says, "I want the lads."

There is a lot ensconced in these words, so let's parse them. The aversion to playing officers is not just a cockney stuff-the-upper-classes thing to be expected from an east end legend. The real point here is that officers are no good at football. This is odd - after all, football originated as a gentleman's game, both in England (where it started out as a public school activity) and almost wherever it subsequently took root. But the upper classes more or less boycotted football between the wars. The reason was simple: in August 1914, professional rugby shut down their league immediately so that the boys could go and fight in France. The football league played out its season, and was subsequently branded as "unpatriotic". It was in this period that football became predominantly a working class pastime in England - a class gap which arguably was not breached until the 1990s. So Colby wasn't just sticking up for the little guy, he really was trying to get himself the best team - and that meant enlisted "working class" men.

Goal is a different kettle of fish. It's the story of an illegal immigrant family living in LA. The son - Santiago - is spotted playing in a local amateur league by an ex-Newcastle who arranges for a trial. After 90 minutes of non-stop cliches (and an amusingly wooden set-piece in a London bar involving David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and Raul), Santiago scores the winning goal against Liverpool to push Newcastle into fourth spot and a Champions League place.

The cliches are a little confused because Santiago is both latin and American. But all the standard ones - he is frequently described as either too lightweight or too slow for the English game - get trotted out. But let's focus on one particular thing: which is that in America, soccer is not a home-grown game. It belongs to immigrants. If there ever is an American superstar, he will not be American-born (viz. Freddy Adu).

Now this is not a completely ridiculous assertion about football in the new world. In Australia and Canada, for instance, many (if not most) semi-pro and pro teams have ethnic origins (Sydney Marconi is the Italian team, Sydney Olympic are the Greek team, etc.), and immigrant communities do use football as a means to perpetuate ethnic ties in the face of assimilation. Many of these countries' best players - Radkniski, Viduka, Stalteri, etc. - either come from other countries or are children of immigrants - and frustratingly, in some cases (Hargreaves, Vieri) they choose to play for those other countries.

But while true in Australia and Canada, it's actually very hard to make that case in the US. Take a quick look down the US lineup and you'll see they are far more home-grown - and far less Latin - than one might expect. In fact, soccer in the US is a very white and suburban game...often chosen by parents for the children because of how "safe" it is. Despite its obvious similarities to basketball (lots of creative freedom, low participation costs) it has never caught on in the inner-cities. So at the national level what you get are teams of technically gifted and highly-fit players (products of the US sports science machine), but almost totally lacking in the individual flair and brilliance that comes from years of street soccer or the screaming nut-job midfielders in the Roy Keane/Patrick Vieira mold that come from playing in a less "safe" environment.

To sum up, American football will never be great until it ceases to be a middle-class sport and is embraced by the working classes. Given how much of the American working class comes from football-mad countries, it does make one wonder why these immigrants have had so little impact on US football culture. But that's a topic for another day....

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