The genre of sports films has been around for decades, in fact nearly a century. The first film was a silent comedy made in 1925 called "The Freshman" about a college student trying to gain popularity by joining his school’s football team. Soccer entered the movie scene in 1930 with a comedy about the fictional Manningford F.C. Since then, sports films have grown with some sophistication, using actors with real athletic abilities and strong cinematography to show the complexity and beauty of the sport. Some films succeed on many levels, some fail and some just fade away. But there is nothing like a rousing sports film to get the blood boiling, renew the passion and provide an evening of great entertainment.
For young players, the options cover the gamut from stupid to inspiring. I think some studio heads believe that kids won’t sit still for a soccer movie unless it has a dog, toilet humor and thinly drawn characters who either are villains or heroes. Nevertheless, a few good films have been produced that don’t insult kids’ and their parents’ intelligence. "Shaolin Soccer" (PG) takes traditional soccer and adds some martial arts to the mix. The movie focuses on the reuniting of five estranged brothers through the teamwork of their soccer training. It has a warmhearted approach to family, a great message about teamwork and some surprising humor. "Gregory’s Girl" (PG) puts a twist on losing your position to a better player. In this case, the better player is a girl replacing center forward Gregory, who is moved to goal — replacing his best friend, who is benched. The film explores the themes of adjusting to being demoted along with burgeoning attraction. This movie is actually ranked No. 50 on Britain’s 100 all-time favorite films. "The Big Green" (PG) tells the tale of a scruffy group of misfits in a backwater Texas town who get an English female coach to build them into a real soccer team. An improbable story (because we all know how difficult it is to be good after years of training not months), but the triumph of good sportsmanship and pluck over dirty play make for an inspiring film.
If you like a good silly film, then by all means watch "Soccer Dog: The Movie" (PG) and its sequel "Soccer Dog: European Cup" (PG). There are important family values and a tug at your heartstrings ending to both films, but the soccer isn’t much to be admired! "Kicking and Screaming" (PG) has Will Farrell as the coach of his son’s 3rd-grade soccer team. Having decided years ago that he would not be the same zealous, competitive parent his father was, Farrell finds himself drawn into the seduction of winning and achieving. The film is silly (it has Will Farrell after all) but does address the issue of how to be a good soccer parent.
For girls, there are two good films — "Gracie" (PG-13) and "Dare to Dream." Both films chronicle the experiences of pioneers in women’s soccer. "Gracie" is a fictionalize account based loosely on the true story of a girl in New Jersey in 1978 who longs to join her brothers on the soccer pitch. After a family tragedy, she gets her chance to compete and has more to prove than her male peers. "Dare to Dream" is an HBO documentary about the U.S. Women’s National Team when they established themselves as the force to be reckoned with on the international stage. The players, such as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain, tell their stories of training, perseverance and sacrifice to make soccer a sport that women can take pride in. A third, not nearly as good film "Her Best Move" (G) is about a young girl who has a chance to make the national team. Coping with a fanatical sports dad and a group of friends who find her passion for soccer distracting, the protagonist has to eventually decide her own fate. This is not really a great soccer film and has some dramatic weaknesses, but the story line should intrigue young female players who have dreams of being the next Mia Hamm or Hope Solo.
For more mature players, I have to say my favorite film is "The Damn United" (R) about "the best English soccer coach never to have coached the national team," Brian Clough and his tenure with Leeds United. Intense on many levels, it shows how talent coupled with hubris can be the downfall of any great player or coach. A detailed picture of the competition that exists in the English Premier League, both in the front office and on the pitch, plus the terrible strain the sport can place on friendships and family, make this one of the best all-round soccer movies. "Goal!" (PG-13) and its sequels "Goal II" and "Goal III" follow a young Mexican in America illegally who gets the opportunity to play for a team in England. Using soccer and soccer skill as the main plot devices, the film explores issues of family, immigration and overcoming bad health (asthma) to achieve a dream most young players have — to play for a European pro team. "Cup Final" (not rated but would probably be R) is an Israeli film set during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the World Cup that year. An Israeli soldier is kidnapped and held by Palestinian soldiers for ransom. They find they not only share an interest in soccer, but actually share a love for the Italian National Team. As their favorite team marches through the playoffs and into the quarter- and semifinals, the soldier and his captors find a level of connection through their mutual fondness for the team. However, this is against the backdrop of centuries of anger, distrust and hatred fueled by an invasion, so the film does not have a happy ending. Yet, it does show why a sport, specifically a world-recognized sport like soccer, can briefly unite even the most hardened enemies and teach them lessons in tolerance. Israeli title is "Gmar Gavi’a." My son highly recommends "Looking for Eric" (not rated but would probably be R) about a middle-aged postman in Manchester, England whose life is rapidly spinning out of control. At his wit’s end, he decides to voice his despair to his poster of Eric Cantona, and with a sudden turn of the mystical, Cantona appears in his bedroom to guide Eric through the muddle of his life. Known as both a philosopher and a brute on the Manchester United squad, he seems to be the perfect footballer to lend Eric support.
Most, if not all of these films, are available on Netflix, HBO and/or Amazon. There are literally scores of good soccer movies and documentaries. I would also recommend "Kicking It" about the Homeless World Cup; "A Time for Champions," about the domination of St. Louis University in men’s college soccer in the 60s and 70s; "The Game of Their Lives," about the United States upset of the English team in the 1950 World Cup; and "Will," about a young boy who loses his parents but struggles to fulfill his father’s wish that they cheer on their beloved Liverpool in the 2005 UEFA Champion’s League Final. Soccer films, like any sports film, will push the envelope of credulity (witness the recent release "Playing for Keeps" that expected us to accept that Gerard Butler was the greatest soccer player of all time!). But despite some flaws, including having actors who obviously know little about how to play the game, there are still some good lessons to be learned and some exciting conflicts to be resolved. Children will enjoying seeing other kids playing the sport they love and possibly even criticizing or learning from their skill. Some of these films have been nominated for and even won some major awards, although Oscar seems to elude soccer movies. Who knows, maybe one of the bright, young soccer players developing today will put their talents into creating the penultimate and Oscar-winning soccer movie. I just hope he or she invites me to the presentation!