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Why is there no great Hollywood soccer movie?

The industry includes many passionate fans of the sport, but it has no 'Raging Bull' or 'Hoosiers.' Some insiders cite unique challenges and say it will never happen, others say one will come soon.

June 06, 2010|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

Graham King has worked with countless A-listers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Jack Nicholson, Cameron Diaz and Daniel-Day Lewis, to name just a few. But ask the Oscar-winning producer of "The Departed" which celebrities made him giddy like a star-struck teen, and he won't mention any actor, saying instead it was the players from the Chelsea FC soccer team.

The day the English-born filmmaker won the best picture Academy Award for "The Departed," King awoke before dawn to watch his beloved soccer squad defeat Arsenal in the Carling Cup final (one friend says it was a sweeter victory for King than his Oscar triumph over "Little Miss Sunshine"). King has hurried off the American set of several of his films on a Friday, flown to England to see a Chelsea match, and been back in the States before cameras rolled Monday morning. King interrupted his 2008 Cannes Film Festival stay to share a private jet to Moscow for the Champions League Final between Chelsea and Manchester United (Chelsea, King's team since age 4, lost in a shootout).

King's passion for the beautiful game is shared by many inside Hollywood — directors, studio executives, actors and other producers. But for all of the industry's most devoted soccer supporters, the movie business has yet to make what anybody considers a definitive mainstream movie about the sport, an especially glaring omission on the eve of the World Cup, opening Friday in South Africa.

Boxing might have "Raging Bull" and "Rocky," baseball "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams," football "North Dallas Forty" and "The Longest Yard," basketball " Hoosiers," ice hockey has "Miracle" and "Slap Shot," and even billiards has "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money."

When it comes to soccer, though, the sport's most memorable Hollywood movie probably has been Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Pelé's cheesy 1981 World War II drama "Victory" — only a marginally better treatment of the sport, in some detractors' view, than "Happy Gilmore" was for golf.

Movie critics (and some art-house film patrons) have embraced several independent movies with strong soccer settings, including "Bend It Like Beckham," "The Damned United" and the recent "Looking for Eric." Documentary filmmakers have delivered a few acclaimed soccer films, including "Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos" and the new "After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United."

It's not so much that the big studios don't make good soccer movies, it's that they don't really make them at all. When 20th Century Fox adapted Nick Hornby's book "Fever Pitch," the subject sport was changed from soccer (the Arsenal Football Club) to baseball (the Boston Red Sox). Universal Pictures is developing "The Fugees," a movie about refugee kids who play soccer in Atlanta, but that's a rare exception to the rule.

It's not as though a lot of people don't love the game, particularly around the World Cup, the every-four-years global soccer championship.

The television audience for all soccer matches in the last World Cup exceeded 26 billion, with nearly 12% of the globe's population watching the final game between Italy and France (Italy won the match on penalty kicks). There are more than 50,000 American Youth Soccer Organization teams in the United States, representing more than 650,000 AYSO players.

But soccer interest pretty much vanishes when the nation's studios decide which features they want to greenlight. It took shoe maker Adidas to finance the three-film "Goal! The Dream Begins" soccer movie series, none of which were box-office hits. When the big studios make a soccer film, it's often a goofy comedy like "Kicking & Screaming."

Soccer's most fervent fans in and around Hollywood, many of whom are British and insist on calling the game football, offer a variety of explanations for the shutout: It's not an indigenous sport, and the World Cup has none of the domestic cultural relevance of the Super Bowl or the World Series. The game is distinguished by split-second athleticism that can't easily be re-created on screen. Scoring can be low or even nonexistent. Football, baseball and basketball are episodic sports with countless pauses to discuss strategy and set plays, but soccer is an uninterrupted 90-minute slog. Actors can't effectively fake playing the game. Moviegoers would rather watch the real thing.

Studio executives "think soccer is for some suburban mom with a 4-year-old," says Joe Roth, who ran Disney, Fox and Revolution Studios and is also the majority owner of the Seattle Sounders, a new (and so far incredibly popular) Major League Soccer team. He believes Hollywood's anti-soccer bias is rooted in a fear (and ignorance) of what's foreign. "We're basically a xenophobic country and don't look at what's going on in the rest of the world as closely as we should," Roth says.

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