By Daniel Bertorelli
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with an estimated 4 billion fans, more than half of the world population, and with a global reach. To have an idea of soccer’s magnitude, cricket is placed at a distant second position in popularity with a 2.5 billion fan base, but limited mainly to the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries. The figures involving this sport are staggering. According to the Business & Economics Research Advisor (BERA) section of the Library of Congress, estimates suggest that there are over 240 million registered players, both men’s and women’s clubs. The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) serves as the international governing body of soccer and it is currently made up of 205 member associations with over 300,000 clubs worldwide.
A few weeks ago I contacted the sports broadcaster, writer and (despite his young age) a “soccer encyclopedia,” Marc Serber. We sat down and talked about soccer for almost two hours over some iced-coffee in the last days of hot and humid Washington DC’s summer. Among many topics within the soccer universe we could not avoid talking about sports films, their strengths and weaknesses and why soccer lacks a successful fictional contemporary film project with a compelling story and likable characters to showcase the biggest sport in the world in all its glory.
Beyond sharing his knowledge with me, Serber introduced me to Steve Knapman, a former professional player, Brit-Am Soccer Academy founder and CEO (the biggest soccer school in the Washington DC metropolitan area), and Technical Director of Potomac Soccer Association. I asked Knapman his opinion about the impact of the 1994 FIFA World Cup had in the soccer business in the US: “It brought soccer to the mainstream. It took a while to be on TV regularly, but kids began to play across the country and it was no longer just the minorities playing. It became big business for many, and the US decided that they wanted to be the best at it, just like other sports. Companies like mine began to pop up all over the country. States began to sanction soccer leagues and tournaments became the ‘norm’.”
My conversations with Serber and Knapman led me to a figures-frenzy research, and I share here my impressions and an x-ray of the crossroads of soccer and film.
I was initially shocked by the number of projects with the keyword “soccer” listed at the website of IMDb (Internet Movie Database): 1692. Not bad, but I was surprised mostly because I could not list 20 of them, and when discussing sports films, modesty apart, I am considered by peers and friends a specialist, proud of my own “mental IMDB” (Internal Memory of Daniel Bertorelli). I can easily attribute the fact that most of the films related to the “soccer” keyword did not have their main plot or main characters revolving around the sport itself. And when they did, they were not marketed at a larger scale with a prestigious theatrical release, probably being restricted to their production companies’ territories and aiming at film festivals, art film theaters or going straight to DVD. But the winds of change are blowing hard in every direction with VOD (Video On Demand) powerhouses such as Netflix, YouTube and the like are paving global avenues of distribution never imagined before. As a matter of fact, there are some good soccer movies in “the cloud” and the latest ones I watched were: 1) “Pelé: Birth of a Legend”(2016) chronicling Pelé’s struggle from the slums of Sao Paulo to leading Brazil to its first World Cup, 2) “Sons of Ben”(2016), a documentary about the incredible story of a small group of soccer fans in Philadelphia taking matters into their own hands and starting a supporters’ group to help bring an MLS (Major League Soccer, the premier soccer league in America) team to their hometown. And last, but not least, 3) the wonderful documentary “Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Football Team”(2007) showing the trajectory of the team that, in many ways, inspired a multitude of soccer fans in America.
The honorable mention on my list (and Mr. Knapman’s favorite soccer film as well) goes to director John Huston’s classic “Escape to Victory” (1981), also known in America simply as “Victory”. With a stellar cast featuring real soccer stars like Pele (Brazil), Bobby Moore (England) and Osvaldo Ardiles (Argentina) to name a few, as well as actors with solid international appeal in the leading roles like Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Sylvester Stallone. What makes “Escape to Victory” a successful sports movie (although it might be listed as a WWII adventure/prison escape drama) is the fact soccer (or football, as it is known in the rest of the world) is just the backdrop for a deeper dramatic plot. Based on postwar historiography to a match played in Ukraine under occupation by Nazi Germany, the real game this underrated film is based upon was nicknamed “The Death Match” (with a caveat to its full veracity due to Cold War Soviet propaganda changing versions over the years). An escape plan during half-time of a soccer match is conceived by the allies POWs who play against the Nazi soccer team. The soccer sequence in the ending is epic!
Produced more than 20 years after “Escape do Victory”, the “Goal” trilogy (2005, 2007, 2009) has drawn my attention for its technical quality, fast paced story and to something interesting: the action in soccer films is frequently transported to Europe. That is something understandable, as Europe is the most traditional and prominent soccer market in the world. In terms of revenue the 2016/17 season had an estimated market size of $25.5 billion. The “UEFA (Union of European Football Association) Champions League” alone generated total revenue of over two billion Euros ($2.3 billion) in the 2016/17 season.
I hope these impressive figures might eventually find their match on this side of the Atlantic with the steady and successful expansion of the MLS, who has drawn over the years not only talents like David Beckham (played for the LA Galaxy and now one of the owners of the Miami team being created), Kaka (until recently defending “the lions” of the Orlando City, owned by Brazilian businessman-trailblazer Flavio Augusto da Silva), and recently warmly welcomed by Washington DC fans, British superstar Wayne Rooney. Not to mention the successful bid made by USA, Canada and Mexico together to host the 2026 World Cup. This means US Soccer Federation (the governing body for soccer in America), has a “Mission Impossible, should they choose to accept it”: finding the right players, training them and inspiring fans to back America’s National Team in less than a decade. Can they do it? I say yes.
I’ve been on the road for a long time in the sports and entertainment industries, and as all numbers related to soccer are superlative, in relation to this sport, I’m going to share with you not one, but two of my “Forrest Gump Moments”:
The first was when I visited the set of “The Game of Their Lives” (2005), a film based on a true story, telling the saga of the 1950 U.S. soccer team, who, against all odds, beat England 1 – 0 in Brazil. Set designers did a great job making the audience believe the story is developing in the city of Belo Horizonte where events really happened, but the film location was the stadium of Fluminense Football Club, in Rio de Janeiro. I had a quick chat with director David Anspaugh (from classics “Hoosiers”(1986) and “Rudy”(1993)) and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo (also from “Rudy” and “My All American” (2015)), who were kind enough to let me hang around asking questions as I was trying to “look, listen and learn” from a Hollywood crew and talent, something unusual in Brazil at that time.
The second happened years later. Back in 2011, I was on a film set in London, working with acclaimed director Fernando Meirelles on his drama “360”(2011). Meirelles had just directed a series of commercials for Adidas with some of the greatest soccer stars in the world (like Lionel Messi and Zinédine Zidane) and he also had in his crew one of the best soccer choreographers (I didn’t even know they existed, but they do). We discussed a little bit some projects involving soccer: my idea for a sports drama feature film, and on his side of the field, a TV series project, if my memory serves me well. He mentioned his difficulty in recreating the magic moments a real game can provide. I remembered watching the actors on the set of “The Game of Their Lives” years before, and Meirelles was right. When I say magic, it’s not “Hollywood magic” using CGI like in the soccer fantasy “Golden Shoes” (2014), which is a mix of plots resembling Michael Jordan’s basketball flick “Space Jam” (1996) and Spielberg’s war drama “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). I am talking about the thrill of a real game. It is really hard to be copied.
I am a firm believer that great sports drama films use the sport as a background to tell a story. When the film focuses in the sport itself, curiously it loses its strength. That’s why characters and plot should have a greater importance than soccer (or any other sport). A great film can help create role models and strengthen the interface between soccer fans and moviegoers, spiraling up both industries. On the other hand, marketing this product can really benefit from a “Hollywood touch” adding to the fact soccer is undoubtedly good business. The Los Angeles Football Club has as some of its co-owners superstars like actor Will Ferrell, basketball icon Magic Johnson, and YouTube itself as a sponsor.
There is a famous proverb in Brazil about scoring goals. A literal translation from Brazilian Portuguese would be something like: “There is no such thing as an ugly goal; real ugliness is scoring none”. I sense it’s time the creative minds at MLS, US Soccer and Hollywood team up to score big on ticket sales, both at stadiums and film theaters. That will foster a new generation of fans and role models, on the silver screen and in real life.
Daniel Bertorelli is a sports entertainment professional, producer and consultant at The Hercules Company. He is a member of the United States Sports Academy National Faculty.