Give me Samoa: goalkeeper Nicky Salapu in Next Goal Wins
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Next Goal Wins: for once, a football film people might actually watch

And celebrating the unlikely kinship of Alan Bennett and Philip Roth. 

For retail corporations, the football World Cup is a quadrennial opportunity to flog tie-in products: branded drinks, breakfast cereals, video games. The movie business would love to have a slice of the action and at least one film about the sport is usually released ahead of the tournament. For Brazil 2014, it’s Next Goal Wins, a documentary by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison that follows the attempts of American Samoa, the team that suffered the record 31-0 defeat against Australia in 2001, to qualify for this year’s contest.

In football movies, though, one kind of defeat is almost always guaranteed. Goal! – a trilogy about a fictional player that was released either side of the 2006 World Cup – was so unsuccessful that it had been relegated to a DVD-only release by the third instalment. The main reason that this sport has struggled to spawn cinematic classics is that the potential market is fragmented and partisan. While most of the globe can identify with James Bond or Buzz Lightyear, a majority of women – and of Americans – remain indifferent to men kicking balls. A further difficulty: even after months in the gym, an Equity member won’t look plausibly like a football star. Michael Sheen is tremendous as Brian Clough in The Damned United (2009) but the actors playing the manager’s Leeds United players look as if they’d struggle to beat a bunch of nuns.

Sidestepping these problems, Next Goal Wins is, for me, one of the best films about football. It’s a documentary – any playing we see is real – and as American Samoa have practically never won a game, every­one will root for them. Because they are also fielding football’s first transgender international player and have a coach who has taken the job for sombre personal reasons, it will be easy to persuade people with no interest in the game that the film goes beyond football.

Indeed, the key to success in this field may be to include as little match-play as possible. Among my front-three favourite football films is the 1939 curiosity The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (available in a digitally restored print on DVD). A player is murdered on the pitch during a charity fixture and although the football is authentic – filmed, poignantly, at the final game played by the 1938 Arsenal team before the Second World War – the director Thorold Dickinson is, in essence, making a detective film, with the stadium and changing rooms serving as classic locked rooms.

In the back of one shot, there’s a newspaper poster announcing Hitler’s ambitions. His enactment of those ambitions forms the background to the movie generally considered to wear the number-one jersey among football films: John Huston’s Escape to Victory (1981), in which Michael Caine captains an Allied prisoner-of-war team, including some incarcerated professionals, against the Germans in a grudge match.

Three key British 20th-century events are combined in that traditional German-baiting chant: “Two world wars and one World Cup!” Escape to Victory is both a fine football film and a great war movie, which does not cheapen historical reality: Caine puts some concentration camp inmates in his squad in the hope of saving them from the gas chambers. However, Huston’s solution to the problem of convincing action – casting real footballers including Brazil’s Pelé and England’s Bobby Moore as POWs – proves problematic. Michael Caine, playing a man who once played for West Ham and England, doesn’t remotely look as if he could have done, while Moore, who actually did represent those teams, is too far into retirement to come across like a plausible footballer.

Generally, football plays better on grass than on screen and the trick is to keep the characters off the pitch if possible. ITV’s Footballers’ Wives (2002-2006) was a hit because it sensibly included more wiving than footballing and Paul Weiland’s charming film Sixty Six (2006), in which a young boy’s bar mitzvah coincides with the England v West Germany final, is more domestic than sporting. The two best films about women footballers – Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and She’s the Man (2006) – also use the game to tackle the bigger issue of discrimination. Next Goal Wins, though, does the double by being interesting to football fans but not exclusively so.

Identical twins

Alan Bennett’s recent nomination, in an 80th-birthday TV interview, of Philip Roth as a favourite writer caused some surprise. But I have long been struck by an affinity between the writers, which was confirmed by Roth’s own recent octogenarian tribute show on BBC1. Each has repeatedly used his birthplace – Leeds and Newark – as a source of inspiration. Roth has written three novels featuring characters called “Philip Roth”, including two of them in Operation Shylock; Bennett’s trio of plays with “Alan Bennett” in the cast list includes a pair of them in The Lady in the Van.

Both have written works in which the central character is, in essence, a penis: Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Bennett’s Kafka’s Dick. And Kafka, a Bennett obsession, also haunts Roth’s The Prague Orgy. Roth has been a gag in The Simpsons, Bennett in Family Guy. So, apparently unlikely literary twins prove to be nearly identical.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge