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For Soccer Films, Few Shots on Goal

By Randy Williams
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 1, 2005; Page N03

Rugby has "This Sporting Life." "Breaking Away" is cycling's shining star. The marquee feature for track and field is "Chariots of Fire." The list goes on with nearly every major sport and several minor ones producing classic sports films: horse racing ("Seabiscuit"), hockey ("Slap Shot"), basketball ("Hoosiers"), skiing ("Downhill Racer"). Fans are spoiled for choice when it comes to football, baseball and boxing films, and even pool has a claim to excellence ("The Hustler").

How is it, then, that no soccer flicks are represented in the premiere movie league?

Will Ferrell guides a team of soccer misfits in the soon-to-open "Kicking & Screaming." (Suzanne Hanover -- Universal Studios Via AP)

With its inherent drama, passion, visual allure, charismatic personalities and multicultural backdrop, soccer has many elements that translate well to motion pictures. Alas, why haven't the world's most popular sport and arguably most influential medium been able to combine for a history-making score on the silver screen?

It's not for lack of effort. From culture clash ("A Shot at Glory," "Bend It Like Beckham") to kid/teen fare ("The Big Green," "Gregory's Girl"), romance (the British "Fever Pitch"), remakes ("Mean Machine") and Hong Kong-style slapstick ("Shaolin Soccer"), dozens of soccer-themed features have premiered. Other efforts such as 1979's "Coup de Tete," the German "Miracle at Bern" and "Mike Bassett: England Manager" have been unable to capture completely their favorite sport on celluloid.

But soccer-loving audiences are still waiting.

On May 13, Robert Duvall and Will Ferrell co-star as father-and-son rivals who take competition to new levels coaching opposing kids' teams in "Kicking & Screaming." It's directed by Jessie Dylan, who did "American Wedding."

And in "The Game of Their Lives," which came out last month (to mostly unenthusiastic reviews), the writer behind "Rudy" and "Hoosiers," Angelo Pizzo, took his brand of underdog storytelling to soccer with the true story of a squad of immigrants who led the U.S. national team to a stunning victory over England in the 1950 World Cup.

Pizzo was undaunted by the sport's relatively weak cinematic history.

"The reason that no soccer film has done well is because there's not been a good one made," he says. "It's not something inherent about the sport that makes it unsuitable for film. I think when somebody taps into it, it's going to be huge. Nobody made a successful basketball film before 'Hoosiers.' "

Al Ruddy, who produced the soccer comedy "Ladybugs," as well as the original "Longest Yard" and "Million Dollar Baby" agrees.

"There are very, very few great scripts that don't get made," he says. "Plain and simple, it's how good it is."

Two of the better ones are John Huston's "Victory" (1981) and the Scottish film "A Shot at Glory" (2000). Both adroitly use real pros mixed in with the actors. The great Pele even designed the plays for Huston.

The real answer, however, lies more in what makes any sports-themed movie a success -- something beyond the ball.

Some of the best sports movies focus on internal conflicts of the main characters, and the story propels along when the stars' actions go beyond the sport and instead look at themes and concerns of the human condition in general.

So in the search for a soccer film classic, opportunism abounds. Warming up on the pitch with high expectations is the August release "Goal!," the first film in a planned $100 million trilogy about a young Latino player from Los Angeles who goes from nothing to global superstar.

The field is wide open. The great global soccer market is still waiting for a cinematic masterpiece to call its own.

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