When it’s on: Saturday, 9 June (2.45 pm)
The football’s here! Euro 2012 means lots of lovely international matches on the telly, most fans making an initial date with the sofa to soak up every last minute of it before they get a week or so in and wonder whether life would really be better if they caught Greece taking on Russia. For those of us who follow England in these things and are cursed with being born after 1966, each tournament is a frustrating experience, a torment of going out on penalties at the quarter finals stage and believing, wrongly, that this isn’t good enough. At least this time, nobody’s expecting too much of the Three Lions. The TV schedules reflect this by not screening the usual slew of football films. There’s no When Saturday Comes, and that’s a good thing. No Escape to Victory, which somehow bridges a football match and The Great Escape, though the virtue ends there. Sadly, BBC4 often used to fling out a series of decent documentary films around this time, but Roy’s Boys have failed to inspire a repeat performance.
What we do have is Goal!, Danny Cannon’s FIFA-backed saga of a nobody who makes good over the course of the yarn. It’s the eternal fictional staple, the sort of fluff you used to read in comics as a kid, tapping into the emotions of every footie obsessed youngster because, well, it’s the stuff of dreams, isn’t it? You’re strutting your groovy stuff for the school/local team, when you spot a stranger on the sideline. He’s watching you. Making notes. Why, isn’t he the chief scout for Fulchester United? Yes, yes he is, and what’s this? He’s chatting to your coach, handing over a card and now you’re being called over…
In essence, this is the story behind Goal! only told on a grand scale, with a decent budget, real football teams, footage shot in actual training facilities used by genuine players, who turn up also. Our hero is Santiago Munez (Kuno Becker), an illegal immigrant from Mexico who’s now living in Los Angeles. He works, ekes out a living, but he just happens to be a wizard with the ball and, sure enough, he’s playing for his park side when his talent is noticed by former scout, Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane). Foy knows raw ability when he sees it. He arranges a trial for ‘Santi’ with Newcastle United, though the youngster has various pitfalls to overcome before he can even board a plane. Eventually making his way to the ‘Toon’ and via a series of incidents that threaten to derail his career, he gets his trial, his spell in the Reserves and ultimately a place in the first team, which coincides with the Magpies’ crucial run-in to clinch a Champions League place. The star striker they’ve signed, Gavin Harris (Alessandro Nivola), is a playboy enjoying the high life and out of touch with his public. Santi meets a girl, a local nurse named Roz (Anna Friel) who impresses him with her grounded feelings about footballers. The manager (Marcel Iures) is a wise Arsene Wenger type who both sees Santi’s potential and is frustrated by his adventures. Back in LA, our hero’s world weary dad (Tony Plana) thinks his dream will turn out to be just that.
There’s nothing new here. The above, spoiler-free paragraph suggests how the film will end, and yes, it’s just what you think. It’s every bit as riddled with clichés as one might expect, Santi’s progress to the top beset with happenings and events that come straight from your nearest boy’s own tall tale. Several elements save it from complete oblivion. The first is Becker himself. As the main character, he’s nobody’s idea of the next De Niro, yet he’s just the right mix of naivete and energy, with a boyishly handsome, wide open face that expresses all his emotion and desire in block capitals. Becker knows enough to look suitably awestruck when he interacts with Alan Shearer, David Beckham or Nivola’s made up star player. It’s a winning performance that just about does just what it has to in order for us to invest in him.
Secondly, Cannon manages to inject a sense of urgency in what happens, to keep the story moving along at the pace of a blistering counter-attack. This is filmmaking for the Sky Sports generation, match footage and training exercises soundtracked with the sort of rock music routinely played over a Sunday lunchtime goals compilation. Favourites like Oasis and Kasabian add muscle to the action as though it’s what their music was born to do. And the camerawork involving the games isn’t half bad. Often enough, these are the Achilles heel of all football films. Even the sainted Escape to Victory looked plodding when the match took place, despite featuring a host of legendary faces and the Ipswich first team. Not here. Goal!’s blend of actors and real players works really well. Steven Gerrard shadows Santi. Frank Lampard stars against our hero’s Newcastle boys. The appearance of big names like Raul, Zidane and Beckham (the latter’s cameo is enough to ensure his acting career should end here) gives the film a degree of authenticity, a place in the real world. There’s even a beautifully chosen shot of Sven-Goran Eriksson chatting up a blonde.
And yet the biggest flaw of the film is pretty much unavoidable. Conceived in Hollywood, by film people who wanted to bring football to the big screen, its contrived narrative (from a script written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais) can’t compete with the spontaneous drama of the real thing. By an unfortunate coincidence, its UK release came a couple of months after Liverpool’s win over AC Milan in the Champions League final, a match in which Rafa Benitez’s side hauled itself back from a three-goal deficit to clinch the tie on penalties. As the momentum of the game shifted from the Italians, real sporting virtuosity was taking place on the pitch, much as it did when an Azzurri side inspired by the adversity of match-fixing scandals back home overcame Germany in a thrilling World Cup semi-final. Compared with this, how can a football fiction possibly measure up, particularly one that, at heart, tells an age-old story that ends in box ticking, predictable glory?
It could be worse, and it was. If Goal! has a heart, it’s in its rags to riches central character. In the sequel, Santi gets his big money move to Real Madrid, which tells the story of a rich boy for whom it’s difficult to care. Goal! was intended to be a trilogy, ending with our man at the World Cup. But by Goal! III, the budgets and interest had all but dried up, leading to a straight-to-DVD release that had little but some stock footage from Germany 2006 and an embarrassed performance by Nick Moran to recommend it. Even Kuno Becker had the sense to restrict himself to a small guest role by that stage.