1-1: Cinema of The Pitch
If Werner Herzog made a football movie, what would it look like? Host David Goldblatt talks football (soccer) and cinema (movies) with the celebrated filmmaker (and reasonable center forward). Herzog talks about falling in love with the game when he watched a young Pelé play in Munich, the cinematography of the TV football experience, and the football film he dreams of making.
words from the host
One of the questions I asked Werner Herzog was: why are there so few good football movies? Seriously: of the hundreds of football movies out there, I would say no more than a handful are actually worth your time or mine (don’t get me started on the terrible Escape to Victory starring Pelé, Bobby Moore, and Michael Caine). And sure, there are plenty of lovely movies that happen to have football in them, like Gregory’s Girl — but they’re not really about the game or the culture. I’m not sure Werner likes any of the football movies he’s seen, either, but as you can hear in the podcast, he has plans to make his own.
While we wait for the Werner Herzog movie, here are my picks for the top five football films actually about football. None of them are perfect, but each of them has something to offer.
And make sure to scroll down and check out photos related to this episode!
#1: zidane: a 21st century portrait
Most of the time, the actual football in football movies looks terrible. Even with professional players, it's incredibly hard to do authentically. It usually looks comic and terribly staged. But Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is an exception. In a world where the TV networks have come to define, for most, their way of seeing and experiencing the game, the film forces us to see it anew.
With 17 cameras trained on one player, Real Madrid’s Zinédine Zidane, the movie goes through an entire game in almost real time. In part it’s about the details of the game on the ground. First, you realize how much of football is just players walking around and making sure they're in the right place at the right time. They’re pulling up their socks and wiping off drops of sweat from their brows and noses. You see how phenomenally Zidane is concentrating; how he’s totally and utterly in that game.
And then, the movie opens up another perspective. There's the most amazing shot from behind the goal, from very low down through the net and right up into the stands. You’re hit by what an unbelievable cauldron this stadium is, how gigantic it must appear, how tiny you must feel on the pitch, and how intense the space is. The incredible darkness of the night broken by the extraordinary illumination of the floodlights. In the middle of this mad theatrical alien space, Zidane is utterly unfazed.
It's one of the most spellbinding movies I have ever watched. It's not for everyone, but after watching it, I will never look at the game of football in the same way again. I will never look at football on the television in the same way again either, because I'll always be wanting to see it through the aesthetic of this movie.
#2: 6:3 play it again tutti
I feel like I’m one of the few people in the English-speaking world who's watched it, but don't let the Hungarian put you off, the subtitles are great. This movie is about a famous game in 1953 where Hungary beat England 6 -3. It was the first time the English football team was beaten at home by foreign opposition. The Hungarians—the Magical Magyars led by Puskas—played football. ln a way that nobody had seen before in England. They came to define what modern football meant.
This game was a defining moment in both countries, but of course, only in retrospect. It needed years of retelling, reinvention, and argument before it came to a settled depth and cultural significance.
So how do you make a film about a moment in the past without any of the baggage of the future? Time travel. Here’s the setup: it's the 1990s, not long after the fall of communism, and we join a group of rather disgruntled refuse collectors on the streets of Budapest, one of whom is our hero, Tutti.
Tutti is recruited by a local woman to clear out her grandfather’s room. It's full of the most useless old nostalgic rubbish, she insists. So Tutti comes by and she shows him into the room and then rushes off, completely disinterested in the process. At this point, Tutti’s eyes turn into saucers, because it's clear very very quickly that her grandfather must have been one of the coaches of the golden generation of the Magical Magyars.
Everywhere he looks are the mementos, the pennants, the flags, the kits, the programs, the posters, the boots, the balls. Tutti puts on a shirt, passes out, and is magically transported back to the day of the game in 1953 in Stalinist Budapest.
He goes on this extraordinary odyssey through communist Hungary. He meets people from all different levels of society. Everyone is obsessively waiting for and then listening to the game. And he, of course, is the only person in the city who knows that Hungary is going to win and what the meaning of that game will be.
It’s a fantastic movie that illuminates, in a way that no documentary ever has, what this game and what football meant to Hungary at this time and how it's come to be such a crucial moment in Hungarian understanding of themselves and their own history.
#3: the damned united
The Damned United is based on the novel of the same title by David Peace. It’s about the 44 days that Brian Clough, an English football manager, spent at Leeds United — the club run by his bitterest rival, Don Revie — in 1974. The Damned United gives you such an incredible sense of England in the 1960-70s, and the state of the football industry with its deep, deep roots in working class industrial England. And then just to top it all, Michael Sheen's performance is one of the greatest acts of ventriloquism in modern cinema.
Clough was a complex, charismatic, garrulous man, and that's what The Damned United has going for it in a way that almost no other football film has. It's got a voice. It's got an authentic voice that you can't stop listening to.
If you're going to make a football movie, and it a given that there won't be much actual football played in it, then basically you’re left with a film about people talking to each other, albeit about football. And the truth is, most football characters, fantastic as they are at football, are not great talkers. They're certainly not articulate and they're very, very rarely witty. Brian Clough therefore offers possibilities as a character that very few people in the history of football could offer.
Clough (along with Bill Shankly) is an example of a certain revered class of managers, in the popular memory of English football at any rate. Working class autodidacts, self-taught, smart, and smart-talking men with serious charisma and serious wit. They've never got a management degree in their life, but man did they know how to operate a team and build a sense of solidarity.
Britain, then as now, remained bound by the cobwebs of its claustrophobic class system. If you wanted to kick against the established norms in any way, Clough was your man. He insisted that talent stood higher than rank and status. He actually knew how to do his job and told the blazers (for want of a better term) where to get off and did it with wit, did it with style.
If you want a chance to touch that moment in English football history and the genius that was Brian Clough, this film and this novel will get you closer than anything I know. I would recommend to anyone who watches this movie to read the novel. Really, read the novel; then watch the movie.
#4: looking for eric
The main character in this film, Eric, is a Mancunian (that's someone from Manchester) postman who is really struggling. He's got mental health issues. He's got a really problematic stepson who's involved with nasty Mancunian gangsters. He's got a daughter from a previous relationship that was completely disastrous and is again rearing its head in his life. He's also a Manchester United fan. And in a piece of inspired mancunina magic realism, Eric Cantona appears to Eric, while high on his son’s stash, and counsels him.
What I love about this movie is that it does something that football movies generally don't do: it gets at a community. So many movies about football are about individuals, about an individual’s response, an individual’s engagement, an individual story. Which is all well and good, but football is also a collective experience — as a team, as a crowd, and as a club's following. Who wants to go to a football game by themselves? What's the point of supporting a club if there's nobody else to talk to about it?
This movie gives you a wonderful mixture of mainstream football culture alongside a window on the new socially-owned alternative football culture of FC United, the breakaway club formed after the Glazer takeover. You've got quite a serious film about the difficulties of being a single parent and dealing with mental health issues, but it's also very comical. And football runs through it, as football runs through so many people's lives. It reflects the way football creates networks of solidarity and friendship sorely missing in an increasingly atomized and isolating England. Call me a romantic, call me a fool, but I found it deeply, deeply heartwarming.
#5: un santo para telmo
My last movie recommendation is an Argentinian film called Un Santo Para Telmo (A Saint for San Telmo). It's a short movie, about 25 minutes, and a very simple story about a Brazilian football player who arrives at the bus station in Buenos Aires to be picked up by somebody from the San Telmo football club.
San Telmo is a small working-class port district of Buenos Aires, and their club is struggling at the bottom of the Fourth Division of Argentinian football. They’re looking at relegation and this Brazilian guy, on the last day of the season, is going to be their salvation. He's picked up at the bus station by a taxi driver who also kind of works for the club. It unfolds into a beautiful, comic, satirical, Homeric odyssey as they try to make their way across the city in time for the kickoff, of course encountering every imaginable problem and obstacle along the way.
What I love about this movie (alongside its humor and its clear-eyed take of many Argentinian attitudes) is that the star of the film is actually the city of Buenos Aires. The city itself is shot so beautifully. You get the sense of a way in which football clubs are so deeply enmeshed in their neighborhoods, how the streets and the people and life actually presses right up against the walls of a football stadium in Buenos Aires.
One of the great pleasures of football is that it allows you to engage with, read, and interpret a city. When I show up somewhere I've never been before, the first thing I'm asking is where's the football? Where are the stadiums? Where do people meet and congregate? From that, I begin to build the outlines of a picture of a city. Of course, if you want to get a feel for a place and mingle with the locals, you can't do better than go to the football.
We should have some honorable mentions. There's a lot of documentaries out there which work pretty well and we will touch on those in another post. More to the point, I’ve only watched a fraction of all the football movies in this world. So if you've seen a football movie that I have not talked about, and we should be talking about it, let us know!