Give me Samoa: goalkeeper Nicky Salapu in Next Goal Wins
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496