If baseball is America’s pastime, then soccer is the world’s. Audiences can be both viscerally and pleasurably reminded of this at Soccer Fever!, BAM’s weeklong festival of soccer films beginning Wednesday. The series runs just before the start of the World Cup in South Africa June 11 (an event discussed in the documentary Fahrenheit 2010, screening Friday). The Cup’s coinciding with both the Stanley Cup Finals and the NBA Finals gives one the opportunity to reflect on soccer’s uniqueness: tight matches that can literally be decided with one kick, stars moving more limberly and ballet-like than in perhaps any other team sport, and (a key grabber) no stoppages in play.
Among the series’s films I’ve seen, the best captures the sense of what it’s like to be fans of the “beautiful game.” France, Here We Come! follows a group of Austrian fans as they root for an underdog at the 1998 Cup. Earthshaking by no means but phenomenally sweet, the movie is best at sketching mini-portraitures of football fans—like the giddy blind musician who describes games more vividly than most seeing people can, or the old man who narrates shots and shot-blocks to his dead father while watering the flowers at Papa’s grave. Yet the film’s also generous enough to include other nation’s fans, as scenes of Austrian bars swap out with Italian cafes and Cameroonian rooms crammed full of hopefuls bellowing for buts.
The filmmakers place themselves in an easily identifiable position. At the time of year when all the bars in some countries are packed at two in the afternoon, it’s tough not to become a footy fan (the still-hardhearted ones should read Nick Hornby’s book Fever Pitch). It’s much, much more difficult to place oneself in the cleats of the men on the field. From 2006, Maradona, the Golden Kid tries to step into both the shoes and mind of Diego Armando Maradona, the Argentine acclaimed in a FIFA Internet poll as the greatest to ever play the game, with mixed results. The archival footage assembled excels at capturing the squat and sturdy longhair’s energy, prone to burst out as he runs across the field, thrusts his arms into the air, and leaps after scoring a goal. Soon, though, one realizes that the film will be comprised entirely of archival footage, without any original visual material, and the outsider filmmakers’ eagerness to ally themselves with Maradona leads to lurid, creepy pop psychology. The voiceover says that this “kind of yellow-haired Pinocchio” has “an undeniable suicidal tendency,” and that “The goal netting he’s hiding behind is more and more like prison wire.” The film traces Maradona’s slide from superstar to fat cocaine snorter with the grace and subtlety of a VH1 special.
By contrast, 1971’s Soccer as Never Before takes a just-the-facts approach, maintaining a ground-level close-up view of Irish winger George Best during a match, with no other foci besides an occasional ticking clock. The film presents Best as the Kobe Bryant of football, a player who alternately walks and sprints, pacing himself and proving as brilliant a tactician as an athlete. Yet, while the film’s potentially fascinating as a piece of strategy, after a few minutes one realizes that Best is all there is to it (perverse viewers might want a match filmed from the ball’s point of view).
Though inspired by Soccer, 2006’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait proves much richer. The view of French star Zinédine Zidane, caught with 17 cameras during a 2005 match to the tune of an entrancing Mogwai score, is like a portrait of the artist in his studio, complete with subtitled running commentary: “When you are immersed in the game, you don’t really hear the crowd. You can almost decide for yourself what you want to hear.” Frequently spatially disorienting, the film changes the geometry of the field based on Zidane’s position on it; the balding hulk bends the screen to his will. The film’s willingness to continually break from overhead and sideways shots of the entire field to tight Zidane close-ups proves a sort of fascinating commentary on a sports crowd’s narrow-minded fascination with its idols, a fascination blown apart at halftime when the film shows births, deaths, discoveries, and crises happening in other parts of the world. The film enriches one’s understanding of Zidane by showing him to be a part of it; amid the chaos of an Iraqi car bomb, we see a man wearing a Zidane jersey.
Goal! World Cup 1966, from 1966, holds no such perspective. The chronicle of Britain’s lone Cup championship is content with making slack cultural assumptions via a presumptuous, offensive voiceover that denies any player or fan speaking privileges. In one match, “the Russian steamroller meets the Hungarian artists,” and after another “Italy went home to their tomatoes,” while the black Brazilian star Pelé moves “like a jailer attacking savagely—again, that’s modern football.” Unlike many of the series’s other films, which highlight individuals, the film’s most irritating aspect (aside from the narrator’s habit of announcing goals several seconds before they’re scored) is its failure to distinguish athletes and teams. The movie ends without noting a single British player.
One could say, though, that what feels like a clodhopper oversight may be part of the movie’s point, denoted by flag-waving throughout the stadium: At the World Cup, nations supersede individual players, and a country’s sense of self rests on the accomplishments of its team. It’s a somewhat hyperbolic point, but nevertheless a salient one—just visit Brazil between this month, and be prepared to watch TV.
BAMcinématek’s Soccer Fever! program runs from June 2 – 8. For more details, including ticketing information, click here.