Soccer/Futbol is long ridiculed by (mainly U.S.) sports writers, perhaps because it’s the biggest sport in the world and yet has failed time and time again to break in the U.S. despite many predictions over the years that when it did finally take, it would become America’s favorite new pastime. That obviously never happened. But the closest soccer did come to being a national phenomenon -- at least from a publicity perspective -- was in the mid-'70s with the New York Cosmos. An improbable tale like all good documentaries, 'Once In a Lifetime' charts the rise and fall of the team against the backdrop of the colorful 1970s in New York. A fascinating and curious tale, the path to soccer becoming a success begins with unlikely players. Warner Communications chief Steve Ross is friends with with the late Turkish American musician and businessman Ahmet Ertegun who started Atlantic Records (owned by WB). Ertergun wants to leave Atlantic, but Ross begs him to stay, telling him he’ll do whatever he wants to keep him happy. Well, Ertegun and his brother Nesuhi, want a soccer team. The empire-building Ross, an energetic and charismatic man, soon gets hooked, finds investors and a real team is born. But a team isn’t enough for the competitive and animated Ross. Brazilian forward Pelé is hired for $4.5 million making him the highest paid athlete in the world. The higher of Pelé (he’s coaxed out of retirement at 34, thanks in part to Henry Kissinger) is massive sports news and it immediately rockets up attendance. Soon famously brusque Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia and the West German sweeper Franz Beckenbauer are hired and the Cosmos have an international team of talent that attracts stars like Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali and Robert Redford to games, and results in endless nights hanging out at Studio 54 and New York’s swankiest disco clubs. Soccer mania is finally sweeping the nation. Narrated by Matt Dillon and featuring a tasteful collection of 1970s funk, disco and soul (Parliament, The Commodores, Dinah Washington, James Brown, etc.), the story of the scrappy New York Cosmos, makes for an entertaining and wholly absorbing documentary that is a must-see for all hardcore soccer fans (who have probably seen it by now).
“Rudo y Cursi” is the perfect soccer movie for anyone who has no actual interest in soccer because, even though it follows the rise and perilous fall of two brothers who go from kids kicking around a half-inflated ball in a dusty dirt lot to professional superstardom (and back again), it never features any actual soccer. It’s kind of amazing. Directed by Carlos Cuarón (Alfonso Cuarón’s brother) and one of the few films actually produced by the “Three Amigos” (Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro), the movie reunites “Y Tu Mamá También” confederates Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as two brothers who are each drafted by major soccer teams and whose relationship, predictably, deteriorates as a result. Gorgeously shot and possessing an amiable, off-kilter charm, “Rudo y Cursi” is also genuinely funny, oftentimes gently poking fun at the brothers’ dirtpoor upbringing and their incompatibility with fame and money. Bernal and Luna are, of course, terrific, and even though it was a huge hit overseas (eventually becoming the sixth highest grossing Mexican film of all time), it made little impact here. At least you couldn’t blame the overabundance of soccer footage this time. Weird side note: one of the funnier subplots in “Rudo y Cursi” involves Bernal having a career as an incredibly cheesy pop star, complete with an amazing music video where he bounces a soccer ball on his head. Somehow, this footage (from the music video), wound up in Amy Heckerling’s recent horror comedy “Vamps” as its own bizarre subplot (Sigourney Weaver wanted to travel to Spain to have sex with him or something). So the legend of “Rudo y Cursi” lives on. Sort of.
This documentary, made as part of the excellent “30 for 30” series for ESPN, and directed by Michael and Jeff Zimbalist, is a film that seeks to interrogate the connection between drug trafficking and soccer in Colombia in the early '90s, specifically through the figures of the titular Escobar men: the notorious and beloved Pablo, and the squeaky clean soccer star Andrés. The two men (unrelated) both rose to fame and fortune in Medellin, Colombia; Andrés as the talented athlete, and Pablo as the cocaine kingpin cum Robin Hood of their town. A fanatical soccer fan, Pablo built the fields and sponsored the teams that incubated young Andrés, who grew up as a respectful and religious young athlete, sought after by many international clubs. At this time, the Colombian club teams were owned by the different drug cartels, who used soccer as their outlet for their blood feuds. The flood of money into the system allowed Colombia to become a soccer powerhouse, fostering and attracting the talent that took them on their meteoric rise to the '94 World Cup in Los Angeles. Everything fell apart for the national heroes at this tournament, who were beset by curses, death threats, and the kidnappings of family members, resulting in the disastrous own goal scored by Andrés, eliminating the team. The film is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of these two Escobars, and at the explosive (literally) political situation in Colombia at this time, but if you’re looking for good game, "The Two Escobars" more than delivers. The soccer displayed is jaw-droppingly, particularly some of the absolutely insane saves made by goalie madman Higuita. It's an investigation of these two men, and their country, but it's also a touching portrait of this once-in-a-lifetime team, who when they were on, were magical. That such talent was tainted by association with crime and scandal is only a sliver of the tragedy on display, with the murder and destruction they had to face in the aftermath of the World Cup and Pablo's political machinations. "The Two Escobars" is required viewing for any soccer fan but it's also a fascinating look at the culture and politics in Colombia at this time, which wasn't that long ago, or that far away.
Did you ever think you'd see Max Von Sydow, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and famed Brazilian soccer star Pelé in the same movie, let alone the same room? With all the talk of directors retiring early (thanks Tarantino...), someone recently pointed to John Huston as an example of an aged director still making good films far into their twilight years, and it's very true. While "Escape to Victory," as it was known everywhere outside the U.S., was no "Fat City" or "Wise Blood" (two great, later-era films of his that we love) it's a terrifically entertaining movie and one that’s become a little forgotten. Set in the heart of WWII, the film centers on allied prisoners of war interned in a German POW camp. A former national soccer team player-turned-major for the Third Reich (Sydow) decides to put on a soccer match between these allied prisoners of war and a professional German football team. And of course, the game, to be played at Colombes Stadium in Paris, becomes a publicity stunt for the Nazi propaganda machine. Led by Michael Caine (whose character was a professional footballer before the war), the team are trying to win, but also planning a risky escape to freedom post-match. The most rousing moment in the film might just belong to Pelé. The star, who is faced with racist epithets during the game from the mostly German crowd, the Nazis and other players, wins everyone’s respect by coming back onto the field while injured and scoring a beautiful goal with a backwards scissor kick. It’s such an astonishing moment that Sydow the Nazi bolts out of his seat with uncontrolled applause, his unbridled enthusiasm and awe for this man’s magnificent athletic talents far outweighing his hatred in the moment. The film also features appearances by Bobby Moore, the captain of Britain's 1966 World Cup champions, Argentine soccer star Osvaldo Ardiles and co-stars British character actor Daniel Massey.
Directed by artistes Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” is not really a film about soccer, nor is it really much of a film. But, revolving around the beloved Algerian French footballer Zinedine Zidane, it’s an interesting picture for several reasons, not the least being the fact that it came out (at least internationally) in 2006, the year Zidane retired following a failed bid to win the World Cup for one last time (win or lose Zidane vowed this would be his last professional match and he’s kept his word). Featuring a scorching and moody score by atmospheric Scottish post-rockers (and avowed soccer fans) Mogwai, 'Zidane' is a strange experiment that focuses on the titular athlete in a 2005 match between Real Madrid (his team) and Villarreal CF. Seventeen synchronized cameras captured Zidane in real time during the game, but unfortunately for soccer fans (or admirers of coherent cinema), the cameras tend to focus solely on Zidane, the back of his head, his ears, and his forehead, often in arduous close-up as the star runs around on the field. It’s excruciatingly boring and yet mesmerizingly hypnotic experience that fans of Zidane (and maybe Mogwai) should experience once (and only once). Regular civilians shouldn’t touch this experimental art project with a 20-foot pole, but hey, that’s why you have us. Ironically, during the last minutes of the match, in dramatic fashion, Zidane was sent off as a result of a brawl, but of course, the film doesn’t even show one frame of this event.
- Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernath, Drew Taylor, Katie Walsh, Oliver Lyttelton