9 films which use football as a brilliant plot device

Film and football have an uneasy relationship. Rarely are fans of the sport treated to an entertaining and honest representation of the beautiful game. For every credible effort like Escape to Victory or When Saturday Comes there are laughable additions to silver-screen folly, such as Goal or Mean Machine.

There are plenty of quality original documentaries – Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and The Two Escobars spring to mind – which present their stories in a unique and compelling fashion, but why has fictional cinema struggled to interpret football in a captivating manner?

One of the biggest factors is that football is a team game: it is difficult to portray the tribulations of 22 different men and keep the plot flowing whilst avoiding confusion along the way.

But all is not lost for football in film. The sport has often been presented as an interesting theme running through movies that aren’t directly about the game, in singular scenes or to expand the story.

Here are nine films that explore different elements of football in varying ways leading to enjoyable results.

Kes (1969) dir. Ken Loach

Let’s start with one of the finest British movies ever made. The majority of Ken Loach’s Kes depicts the harsh upbringing of young Billy Casper in the north of England during the 1960s. A moment of levity comes in the form of an overly serious football game in a PE lesson.

This 10-minute scene features memories that any pupil of a public school will be familiar with; crap pitches, grotty changing rooms, kids climbing on the crossbar and sergeant major teachers who fancy themselves as the next Bobby Charlton.

It’s a farce but when were those lessons anything but? One of the nicest touches in this scene is the visual inclusion of the score (which finishes Man Utd 1 Spurs 2) and the classic Sports Report radio theme.

Gregory’s Girl (1981) dir. Bill Forsyth

Cinema hasn’t shied away from depicting the women’s side of the game, leading to a diverse range of films including Bend It Like Beckham and Air Bud: World Pup. However, Gregory’s Girl is easily the best example.

This sweet and hilarious tale of unrequited love set in Scotland sees the titular character attempt to win the heart of Dorothy, who quickly becomes a sensation at school due to her football skills.

What Gregory’s Girl gets right is not presenting a girl playing football in 1980s Scotland as a peculiar thing but rather something to celebrate. Dorothy is treated as a hero by her peers and she embraces that in a delightfully graceful manner.

Mustang (2015) dir. Deniz Gamze Erguven

A film about the formative years of five young sisters in a strictly conservative family in rural Turkey doesn’t immediately hint at a football theme, but Mustang features one of the best depictions of fandom in recent history.

Lale, who is the youngest of her siblings, is obsessed with Trabzonspor and is determined to attend one of the club’s cup games – at which only women can attend due to previous crowd violence and hooliganism. The problem is that she has been banned from doing so by her foster parents.

In an act of defiance, Lale and her sisters go to great lengths to attend the game. Cue much humour and emotion as the girls cheer on their team amongst other ecstatic women whilst their aunt attempts the conceal the truth from their guardians.

This becomes a significant moment of joy for the girls before their lives soon spiral into tragedy.

The Traveler (1974) dir. Abbas Kiarostami

The yearning to go to a football match is also visited in the second feature from Iranian auteur Abbas Kairostami. However, the manner in which the protagonist obtains his tickets for a big fixture in Tehran is far more disconcerting.

Qassem is a 12-year-old tearaway who becomes obsessed by the possibility of watching a match in Iran’s capital. In order to go to the game he lies, cheats and steals enough money to acquire a ticket – but were his nefarious actions justified?

This is a rare and darker exploration of football fanaticism, which conveys the expensive and exclusive modern game where excessive prices force out the common man.

Timbuktu (2014) dir. Abderrahmane Sissako

The historical Malian city of Timbuktu is under strict rule by extremist jihadists who have outlawed all entertainment, including football. But this doesn’t stop the young men of the city enjoying the sport they love.

In one exhilarating scene a group of teenagers play a fiercely competitive game with an imaginary ball. The elegant cinematography and commitment of the boys make it seem no different to watching an actual match with an actual ball.

Football is their sanctuary and this scene brilliantly portrays how the human spirit will endeavor even in the most desperate situations.

Locke (2013) dir. Steven Knight

Ivan Locke is a man with a lot on his plate. He is trying to organise a huge construction operation whilst driving from Birmingham to London to witness the birth of his illegitimate child – the result of a one-night stand. He’s also supposed to be at home watching a football match with his family.

Tom Hardy acts the entirety of his role as Locke in a car over a series of phone calls. Too scared to tell his son what is happening in his life, the pair instead talk about the football with heartbreaking restraint and sincerity.

To see Hardy shed a tear whilst listening to his son describe a wonder-goal from a lumbering centre forward named Caldwell, is something that truly resonates with football fans.

The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (1972) dir. Wim Wenders

What do footballers do when they’re not playing football? It’s unlikely that many of them would go off the rails in the manner of goalkeeper Joseph Bloch in this slow-burning thriller from the early 1970s.

In the first scene Bloch is sent off for dissent during a game in Vienna and, rather than take an early bath and apologise to his teammates. he decides to go AWOL, aimlessly wandering the city.

He quickly befriends a cinema cashier and then inexplicably murders her for no apparent reason. Instead of going on the run he returns to his quaint hometown and hides in plain sight.

Bloch’s monologue at the end of the film poignantly explains the movie’s title and begs a bigger question: do stressed out footballers have the support they need, especially goalkeepers who are always more likely to be the villain than the hero?

Eastern Promises (2007) dir. David Cronenberg

Sticking with darker adaptations of the beautiful game, you’ll struggle to find a more morbid look at football than Eastern Promises and the way the Russian mafia exploit a football rivalry to cover up one of their crimes.

In the aftermath of a game between Chelsea and Arsenal, a young and intoxicated Russian is brutally murdered by a rival gang just yards from Stamford Bridge. Mercifully it’s a short scene, but it’s a clever use of the violent tendencies that can erupt in local derbies.

Eastern Promises doesn’t particularly show football fans in a positive light, as despite the murder taking place in broad daylight close to the waves of supporters making their way home, no one decides to intervene.

Good Bye Lenin! (2003) dir. Wolfgang Becker

Let’s end on a more positive and uplifting note. Good Bye Lenin is a bittersweet tale of a family in East Germany who go to extraordinary lengths to try and protect their mother, who has been in a coma, from the truth that her beloved country no longer exists following the fall of the Berlin wall.

This all takes place during West Germany’s victory at the 1990 World Cup, and although the film doesn’t explore the significance of the country’s success in great depth, it does show how important that win was in reuniting a fractured nation…even if it did come at England’s expense.

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9 films which use football as a brilliant plot device
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