As will soon become apparent, I am not a film critic. But since I spent most of the past year stuck at home and couldn’t plan groundhopping trips or go to games, I decided to delve further into the world of soccer-related books, films and other such distractions.
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Thus I present to you my untrained and uneducated reactions to a couple of films which are kind of about football, but really about its place in society and our minds.
Soccer As Historical Battleground: The English Game
First up, one that you’ve probably heard if you have a Netflix subscription, plus it comes from a known (by some) source. The English Game is a six-part “period drama,” as I think it’s called, from the creator of Downton Abbey. I generally run like hell from anything related to a period drama, but hey, this one had my favorite game in it, and seemed to be about an actual time in the actual history of the game. And since I was 100% unemployed during the pandemic, what the hell else was I going to write about?
And so I wandered into the world of period dramas — and it was about what I expected. Everybody was beautiful, they were all well dressed, there was lots and lots of over-the-top dialogue, clichés abounded, and the whole thing was utterly marinated in the English obsession with class. I suppose this is what one gets from Downton Abbey, as well, but I would rather stand in the rain on an uncovered terrace for 14 consecutive National League South games than watch five minutes of that show.
Unless it’s about soccer, of course, and The English Game kind of is. It’s set in the late 19th century when football had just been gathered together under one set of rules and the Football Association, which (at least according to the show) was run by a bunch of old-school moneyed pricks who treated their wives like cattle, couldn’t reconcile with their autocratic fathers, and spent every evening dressed to the nines, eating fabulous meals, smoking, and playing billiards.
Meanwhile, up in the foggy and smoky north, the land of gritty and hard-working but honest and decent folk (remember, clichés!), something else was brewing in the game. Mills had teams, you see, and it finally occurred to mill owners to go and find good footballers, give them cushy “jobs” at the mill, and put them on the team — the main goal of which seemed to be kicking Soft Southern Ass and winning the FA Cup, which no one from the north had ever done.
As you can already sense, this is exactly what happened — both in the film and in reality, as Old Etonians haven’t done much in the Cup for years. But here we have to see it unfold amidst much southern huffing and northern stomping. Also thrown in are father-son issues, women’s-lib issues, owner-worker issues, child-custody issues, domestic violence issues … you get the idea.
It might come as a mild shock, but I actually enjoyed this show. I don’t mind a certain lack of historical accuracy, and even some nonsense, while seeing “actual” events being played out. And I kind of enjoyed making the occasional fun of it. (“Okay,” I once yelled to my imaginary fellow watchers, “We’re about to go slow-motion!”) I also don’t strictly mind watching beautiful people dressed elegantly and inhabiting a well-done facsimile of Olden Days. And hey, it was only six episodes that added up to about five hours. That’s a couple evenings in Covid World.
As to the accuracy bit, they had a lot of the actual soccer stuff mostly right; virtually all of the drama was made up. Here’s a good wrap-up of that.
(Hat-tip to The Athletic for adding player ratings to their review. Brilliant.)
Into the Mind of the Obsessive: One Night in Istanbul
What I really enjoyed, though, was a film I’d heard about for years: One Night in Istanbul. (Available on Amazon Prime and Tubi.) There are certainly some clichés here, as well — I cringed on the opening line that “football is like a religion” — and here again, the game is just a reason to tell a bigger story. But this story is fun and wacky, and also built around something I can both understand, the desperate desire to see your favorite team play a championship game, and something I can remember, the 2005 Champions League Final.
Since this film was made in partnership with Liverpool Football Club, there is plenty of actual game footage here, and the setup is pretty simple. Two guys who love the Reds and have been to all their European Finals are desperate to get to Turkey for the 2005 game. Their sons want to go, as well. But nobody has tickets, until one of the dads stumbles into a shady opportunity: just deliver this package to a guy in Istanbul, and he’ll give you two tickets. That sets the dads up, and the sons go along, hoping for a miracle.
Of course, all sorts of hijinks and shenanigans ensue, and while you already know who won the game — this was the famous comeback from 0-3 down at the half — you don’t know if they’ll make the game, or honestly even survive. (Oh, who am I kidding? Of course they survive!) Among the clichés (dodgy Turks, obsessive football supporters, beautiful woman as moral conscience, etc.) there are some genuinely funny bits and some sweet ones, as well. It pushes several father-son buttons, for sure, but also deals in some “remember when,” like when the dads spend the night on the rooftop, singing and drinking with fellow fans, remembering when they did the same thing in Rome in ’77.
This is not epic film-making by any means, and it shows a few more cracks in its craft than The English Game, but considering the subject matter — a pack of goofballs trying like hell to make something happen when it’s big, complicated, potentially dangerous and probably meaningless in the end — that all seems perfectly appropriate.