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When Stuart Ford recently sold the football movie Goal around the world, there was just one problem. “The only hindrance in selling it to distributors was the sketchy track-record of football films,” Ford told me. “The first question anybody would ask me was, ‘What’s so different about this football film compared with all the rubbish that came before?’”

Indeed: the world’s most popular art form had always failed the world’s most popular sport. “There is hardly any film genre with a reputation as bad as football films,” said the film historian Jan Tilman Schwab in Berlin last week. Mention the genre and people howl, “Escape to Victory!” But now something is changing. Schwab was speaking at probably the biggest football film competition ever, his encyclopaedia of football films is due out this winter, and Goal has become only the latest football movie to sweep the earth. Finally football has sneaked into the cinema.

The most common complaints about football movies have always been:

■The football in them doesn’t look like football. Nick Hornby phrased “the great dilemma: do you cast footballers who can’t act, or actors who can’t play football?”

■Football movies lack the glorious uncertainty of real football, because you know the underdog is going to win with a last-minute goal by the hero.

■Why bother watching fake football when the real thing is so exciting?

The couple of hundred football movies made so far have generally been low-budget, because the world’s biggest film industries – Bollywood, Hollywood, the Japanese and the French – scarcely bothered with soccer. Hollywood preferred boxing, a sport almost nobody plays. Perhaps because of this neglect, the best football scenes occur in movies that are mostly about something else: the Scottish druggies in Trainspotting thinking of Archie Gemmill’s brilliant goal against Holland as they orgasm, or the radio commentary of the 1954 World Cup final that accompanies the main character’s death in Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun.

Yet cinema was missing a trick by ignoring football. Hornby, in a review of the football movie Yesterday’s Hero, after calling it “probably the worst British film since the war”, concluded: “I loved every minute of it – it is quite impossible not to love a film about footie.”

Obviously football movies shouldn’t focus on matches themselves, because the real thing is better. However, football’s milieu, its passions, and the game’s essential fantasy – poor boy conquers world – work on screen. Ori Inbar, director of the Israeli football movie Provence United, explains: “Sports and beauty are the easy way for people to move up. That’s why people usually dream through sports – and winning the lottery. But how often can you show winning the lottery?”

The boom in football films probably started in 2001 with the Hong Kong film Shaolin Soccer. By turning football into a sort of manga, the movie proved that directors could now render the game almost as they liked thanks to digital technology. Any physical act could be embellished. Shaolin Soccer was a global hit. In China, untold millions of pirated copies were sold. Next, the small independent British movie Bend It Like Beckham grossed $32m in the US. This set film executives thinking. Ford notes “the massive popularity of soccer among the age group that is the dominant movie-going audience in America, not to mention the strong Hispanic interest.” No wonder Disney agreed to distribute Goal in the US.

In 2003 came one of the most successful German films ever: The Miracle of Bern, about West Germany’s victory in the 1954 World Cup. Nearly 4m tickets were sold, fans cheered the team in cinemas, and honked their car horns afterwards in celebration of victory. The football in the film looked so much like football that it was probably the best-ever depiction of the 1954 final, better than the original television screening. Digital technology created the crowds.

Even Goal is much better than I feared. Yes, it’s full of irritating product placements, but then so is football itself. Yes, it’s the old fairy-tale of the poor boy making good, but then so is much of professional football, from Samuel Eto’o to the middling Brazilian at your local club. Apart from the hero’s inevitable last-minute winner, Goal has veracity. In some ways, like Miracle of Bern, it has more of it than televised football: it takes you inside Newcastle United’s changing room on rainy training days, and gives you more close-ups of play than television does. The new digital technology helps. Until the second world war, movies depicted football better than the newsreels could. Now they are closing the reality gap again.

Yet the biggest boom is not in movies but in documentaries. I first noticed this in February, when I was ushered into the presence of the director Michael Apted, whose films range from James Bond to the legendary documentary series Seven Up, to help with a football documentary he is making. In the past month, I’ve attended the first two football film festivals of my life, in a Tuscan mountain village and in Berlin. (Keep the invitations coming.) Berlin’s Prix Europa festival had never previously included a football competition, but this one featured nearly 70 films, about 90 per cent of them documentaries. Why? “Football has maybe come out of its proletarian corner – at least that’s what I can say for Germany,” explains Lars Schepull, the organiser.

It’s true of France and Italy too: at last their intellectuals are noticing sport, as happened in Britain a decade ago and in the US a century ago. And documentaries have become the artistic medium of choice since Michael Moore showed they could be box-office hits. The intellectual at a party, who a century ago would have been a poet and 50 years ago a novelist, is now a documentary filmmaker in love with football. Some of the results are magnificent. If you ever can, see Requiem for a Cup Final: Heysel ’85, a Belgian reconstruction of the tragedy in which 39 fans were killed. At last the game is getting the cinema it deserves.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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