While baseball, horse racing and American football have inspired classic movies, soccer has languished in Hollywood's lowest league: unsexy, uncinematic and unsellable. Hardly surprising, considering that in Hollywood, sporting success is a metaphor for the American dream, and that the high point for the US football team came when it beat England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
It is harder to explain the dearth of decent films about soccer by British directors. They have, after all, triumphantly employed male ballet dancers and strippers as conduits for working-class frustration - but football fans have been fed the buffoonish Mike Bassett: England manager, the loutish When Saturday Comes and the misfiring There's Only One Jimmy Grimble. And don't forget Sly Stallone high-fiving Bobby Moore in the Anglo-US Second World War yarn Escape to Victory. The three most memorable roles in home-grown soccer pictures were written for girls: Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham and Clare Grogan in Gregory's Girl. As Nik Powell, executive producer of Fever Pitch, the 1997 film of Nick Hornby's novel, muses: "Rarely will you find a great story, and even then, it is almost impossible to recreate football's authenticity on screen. If it's not the real deal, fans don't want to know."
However, this year an unprecedented number of films about soccer are to be released, suggesting that film-makers have finally woken up to the appeal of the planet's most popular sport.
Although Americans are yet to embrace professional soccer truly, the Junior League's "soccer moms" are part of the cultural landscape. The summer release Kicking and Screaming, in which Will Ferrell coaches his son's team, marked soccer's first appearance in a Hollywood movie. And the recent Game of Their Lives, which relives the US 1950 triumph, is positively misty-eyed: it begins with a veteran journalist reminiscing about the game to the real-life football prodigy Freddy Adu.
September marks the transatlantic release of Lexi Alexander's Green Street, in which Elijah Wood swaps hobbits for south London football fans. Like many film-makers, Alexander says Bend It Like Beckham, which grossed $32m in the US, was the turning point for the sport in cinema. "It empowered us," she says.
Now due to begin shooting in the US is The Goal, executive- produced by that "Arsenal fan" Spike Lee, in which Mario Lopez (the sitcom star) escapes the slums of Rio for the US to become the world's best player. At the same time, the internationally acclaimed director Walter Salles is making Linha de Passe, about four Brazilian brothers who attempt to become soccer stars. Also in the pipeline is an untitled German portmanteau directed by Kenneth Branagh, Emir Kusturica, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Werner Herzog, while Michael Apted is visiting eight countries to make a documentary about football and globalisation.
The most ambitious project is indisputably the $100m-plus trilogy Goal!. Part one, featuring cameos from Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham, will be released in the UK on 30 September. Goal! is the brainchild of Mike Jefferies, a dotcom entrepreneur once linked with a takeover bid for Liverpool Football Club. Jefferies hopes to mine soccer's global appeal with the tale of Santiago, a Mexican kid plucked from a Los Angeles barrio who goes on to shine in the English Premiership. A sequel set in the Spanish Liga will begin shooting in October, and the conclusion will be filmed at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. All three flicks are being jointly produced by Jefferies's Milkshake Films and the superstar Mel Gibson's Icon Films. "Part of our ability to get the cash that can do justice to football is that we were able to tap into the fact that the sport is significantly 'hot enough' in the States," says Jefferies. "Every studio head we went to see had kids who play football. They understand the potential is enormous."
Because of this, a shadow is looming over both the artistic integrity of the trilogy and the image of the beautiful game. The ugly truth is that the real stars of the project are not the actors or the footballers, but the sponsors. Goal! is endorsed by Adidas and football's ruling body, Fifa, both of which are salivating over the prospect of new markets. In return for "access in the broadest sense", Jefferies has promised Fifa huge worldwide exposure, particularly in the Americas and Asia. Tellingly, on the one occasion Beckham has mentioned the film, he said: "There's a new movie called Goal! that I'm involved in, as it's to do with Adidas."
Adidas, which sponsors Beckham (as well as the other Real Madrid galacticos who appear in Goal!), and Coca-Cola, the film's second-biggest investor (which watched him sign a $10m, five-year deal with Pepsi last year), have much at stake. Jefferies estimates that the main sponsors have pledged tens of millions of dollars towards the production, committing as much as $160m to marketing the first film alone. This year, Adidas happens to be sponsoring Major League Soccer, America's burgeoning professional league, under a ten-year deal.
Herbert Hainer, chief executive of Adidas-Salomon, says: "It wasn't hard to persuade the producers they are attractive to a world audience. There is a mutual benefit for the film and us." Gushing about Goal!'s marketing potential, Jefferies explained: "This is an opportunity for film to present itself [to advertisers] as wet cement." Talking to Screen International, Matt Barrelle of Milkshake went further: "We try to work out films from the point of what the [sponsorship] market would demand, and not the other way round, which is the norm in the film industry."
Adidas's involvement has led to some commercial decisions that seasoned Hollywood power-brokers could only dream of. Although, as a Liverpool lad, Jefferies would have loved to shoot Goal! at Anfield (the plot calls for a northern English club to sign the budding star), it was actually shot at St James's Park, because Newcastle United is kitted out by Adidas. Last year, Newcastle duly announced it would tour the US this summer to coincide with the film's release in one of Fifa's target growth markets - prematurely, as it turned out, as a more thorough assessment of the club's Stateside fan base nixed the promotional trip.
In the second instalment, our hero moves to Real Madrid: another Adidas client. And, of course, Fifa stages the World Cup, backdrop to the final film. The official sponsors listed on the Goal! website include Fifa, Adidas, Newcastle United, Real Madrid and Major League Soccer.
This sort of commercial clout must leave the trilogy vulnerable to questions about creative control. Adidas, which routinely spends millions of pounds on slick television commercials featuring its indentured football stars, could hardly have been displeased when the producers hoicked the award-winning cinema verite director Michael Winterbottom off the project, replacing him with Danny Cannon, best known for the glossy US television series CSI: crime scene investigation.
Then there is the thorny issue of rival sponsors - many of the teams our hero plays against in Goal!. The contracts with them are likely to insist that each player wear his side's real shirt, emblazoned with the sponsor's logo. A willingness to give competing brands visibility for the sake of authenticity would be a true test of Jefferies's assertion that Goal! will not consist of three 90-minute commercials masquerading as entertainment.
Part one of Goal! is released in the UK on 30 September