Soccer on the Screen

After the United States stunned England with a 1-0 victory at the 1950 World Cup, soccer mysteriously died in America. Baseball, football and basketball dominated the postwar years; it wasn't until the North American Soccer League kicked off in '68--and the New York Cosmos glowed with stars like Brazil's Pele and Germany's Franz Beckenbauer--that the sport surged back to life nationally. Paul Crowder and John Dower tell the compelling story of the meteoric rise of the Cosmos--and U.S. soccer--in their new documentary, "Once in a Lifetime," set to premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival this week. It is just one of a notable spate of soccer films sweeping the German capital ahead of this summer's World Cup. "There was no other team in the world like the New York Cosmos," says Crowder, a Londoner living in Los Angeles. "Now the stories are coming out."

Spurred by the runaway success of "Bend It Like Beckham" in 2002, filmmakers from Iceland to Iran are looking to capitalize on the soccer fever that's seized Berlin. More than a half-dozen feature films and documentaries on the sport have bounced their way into the Berlinale's prestigious lineup. "The last few years we've seen increasing interest [in soccer], among intellectuals especially," says Gerd Graus, the media chief of Germany's World Cup Organizing Committee. "There are many more published books, theater performances, museum exhibits--all about soccer. Now with the Cup nearly here, the interest is high enough that people will go see the films."

But not all the Berlinale's soccer films are necessarily about the game. Robert I. Douglas's movie "Eleven Men Out," shot in his native Iceland, is the fictional story of Ottar Thor, a soccer star who announces he's gay and must battle the prejudices of his family, teammates and fans. It's the first film from Iceland that deals head-on with homosexuality, says the director; the fact that it's about a soccer player is incidental. "It's a soccer movie without the soccer," says Douglas. "The current generation of soccer films is putting the human element at the forefront."

Indeed, soccer appeals to many filmmakers for its universal--and cinematic--themes of teamwork, striving and making goals. It is the perfect vehicle for telling humorous, socially engaged and often deeply individual stories. "Soccer is an excuse--a reason to go ahead" with your message, says Chema Rodriguez, Spanish director of "The Railroad All-Stars," a documentary about a group of Guatemala City prostitutes who form a soccer club. On one level, the film is a comedy about soccer-crazed villagers, but it's also "about simple, mistreated people who unite and fight for their rights" and draw attention to the violence in their lives, says Rodriguez. Following his award-winning drama "The Circle" (2000), about the harsh lives of Iranian women, Iranian director Jafar Panahi takes on women's struggle for equality in "Offside," in which a girl disguised as a boy breaks the law by entering a soccer stadium to watch a match in Tehran. It will join 19 other films screening in competition for the top prize, the Golden Bear.

Other soccer flicks in the festival's lineup include Spanish director Gerardo Olivares's "The Great Match," a comedy about the extremes that fans go to in order to catch the televised final game of the 2002 World Cup. A German documentary by Lars Pape, "Why Three-Thirty?" looks at soccer as a social phenomenon that connects families, friends and cities. And in "Zion and His Brother," Israeli director Eran Merav recounts a 12-year-old boy's tragic path of revenge as he seeks to recover his stolen soccer shoes.

Germany, unlike America, has been obsessed with soccer ever since its defeat of Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final--one of the first moments of national revival after World War II. More than half a century later, it's hard to imagine this country making a greater fuss about the tournament it's hosting. But the Berlinale is certainly doing its part to turn Germany's soccer fever into a global epidemic.

Soccer on the Screen | News