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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Befriending barn owls - the spirits of the night

The Polish for “barn owl”, płomykówka, evokes the birds’ flame-like plumage - and their presence evokes old magic.

Not long ago, at the cool end of an autumn afternoon, I met a woman on the street in the Polish resort town of Sopot. She was young in the face, almost boyish, her dark-gold hair intricately plaited, the light in her eyes as brown as the wing of the barn owl perched on her arm. For a moment, I thought it wasn’t real, something virtual, perhaps some new and elaborate form of accessory. Then it moved and I felt the life of it, a vivid yet contained field of resonance.

I stopped walking and the woman stopped to let me see: the bird was young but it was not at all disturbed by the people going by, its head turning this way and that to take everything in. It was simply, starkly beautiful; but without the necessary words to ask a question, or address a compliment to either bird or woman, all I could do was smile and the woman smiled back, nodding slightly before she went on her way – a fleeting encounter, no doubt, but for the rest of the day I belonged to a different world, a place touched with an old magic, a world where a woman could befriend a spirit of the night time and carry it with her through the glare of day.

When I told a Polish friend about this encounter, she said that the word in her language for “barn owl”, płomykówka, was particularly beautiful: płomyk, she said, is a “little flame” (my dictionary also gave “glimmer”) and my first thought was that the name was derived from the white of the owl’s face, glimmering in the dark as it hunted, an eerie white that, once seen, is never forgotten. Yet my encounter with the woman in Sopot suggested another possibility: look closely at a barn owl as it flies and, even as it shifts and shimmers away, vanishing here and reappearing elsewhere, there is most definitely a hint of cold blue fire in the plumage, a chill cyan, like the blue at the centre of a candle flame. (This blue is clearly visible, though less spectral, when the bird is at rest.)

A few days later, I found myself in Gdansk, talking to one of those artists who sell their work in the city squares of tourist towns all across Europe. Most of the stalls here were dedicated to views of the city or architectural details of the great buildings, destroyed during the Second World War, then lovingly rebuilt with the care that only a ruinously damaged but undefeated people can muster. This man, however, was different: a practitioner of a certain variety of mid-European surrealism, he made prints of a highly symbolic and occasionally disturbing nature – and a central feature of this art was the płomykówka.

The owls were beautifully, intricately drawn and pictured in various situations, both in flight and at rest, but one image in particular caught my eye. The bird occupied the foreground, staring out at the viewer, as if offering a challenge; behind it, in an old, partially ruined castle, a dark entrance loomed, at once inviting and remote, like a doorway in a dream. I asked what the picture meant. The man replied that the door in the wall was wisdom but to reach it you had to befriend the owl – which is to say, you had to become equal to the night.

I nodded but I hadn’t really understood and he sensed that, as I stood gazing at the picture, trying to figure out what “equal” actually meant. He laid his hand on my arm. “You have to befriend the owl,” he said. “That’s all.” He took the print down and handed it to me. “You befriend the owl, then you enter the castle.”

I nodded and thought again of the woman I had met in Sopot and of the feeling I had come away with, a passing sense of the old pagan life that, long ago, before the fall, had brightened Europe from Delphi to Donegal – and it thrilled me, suddenly, to imagine that this flame still glimmers here and there, like the little fire in the wings of
a hunting owl.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State