Why is it so hard to make a good football movie?

Many have tried, but few have succeeded in making a good football movie - here's why it's so hard to capture the magic of the beautiful game

Parminder Nagra as Jess in the football movie Bend It Like Beckham

Football (or soccer if you like to say things wrong) is arguably the most popular sport on the planet, but when it comes to cinematic depictions of the beautiful game, very few football movies have been able to live up to the real thing. So why is it so hard to make a good football movie?

There are some exceptions to this rule, of course. The 2000s movie Bend It Like Beckham is a fantastic example of football and drama combining effectively, delivering all the fun and thrills we expect from an afternoon on the terraces. And, while it may be a little bit cheesy, Goal! is a perfectly serviceable attempt at capturing the magic of the sport, with most of its issues stemming from the acting rather than the visual side of things.

Therein lies the problem for most efforts within this sub-genre; football as a sport relies heavily on its visual elements, and we as viewers are accustomed to a very particular way of watching the game unfold. So, when filmmakers try and throw us into the heart of the action on the pitch, as they so often insist upon doing, it just doesn’t feel right.

To put it simply, the pace of a game of football is too quick and intense to try and recreate it in a cinematic way. The specific camera angle that we see on our television screens every weekend is chosen for a reason, in that it allows us to view as much of the pitch as possible at any given time.

When a studio is broadcasting a match, the audience are placed in the stands, with close-ups reserved for slower moments in a game when the ball has gone out of play, or to celebrate a goal. If any movie were to linger on wide shots as much as a 90 minute football match does, it would be a pretty strange experience.

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The demands of a crowd of supporters at a football match and the audience in a cinema are so different it’s almost impossible to find the right balance for a football movie. We don’t want to be at ground level watching the ball roll along the grass, and we don’t want to be all up in the face of a sweaty player either like we’re in an action movie.

These approaches are taken in order to try and recreate the energy of a football match, but that’s the problem – you can’t recreate something so dynamic and expect to imbue the footage with the same kinetic energy as if you were seeing the real thing. Football, like most sports, is rooted in natural, instinctive movements and moments.

Santiago Munez in the football movie Goal!

Actors are very good at what they do, but it’s incredibly difficult to go through the motions of kicking a ball, performing a tackle, or even just running into space with enough authenticity to make it feel like they are athletes at the height of their game. That’s the reason sports stars do what they do, because they’re the best of the best.

Some performers can achieve greatness though, but the common trend seems to be that individual sports translate far better to the screen. Margot Robbie is impeccable on the ice in the movie based on a true story I, Tonya, and Natalie Portman transforms into a top-tier ballet dancer for the psychological thriller movie Black Swan.

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When it comes to a team sport however, the intensity and rhythm is completely different and it becomes incredibly hard to form a tangible version of this for cinematic purposes. There are simply too many moving parts.

Instead, when you have an actor performing any aspect of the game, more than likely after multiple takes, you are diluting the inherent spontaneity and raw dynamism of the beautiful game. There’s a big difference between playing a sport, and pretending to play a sport, and it really does show on screen.

Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum in the football movie She's The Man

Essentially, when you try to make a football movie, it’s crucial that any filmmaker understands what does and doesn’t work. While much of this comes down to the physicality, the tone of the piece is just as important to striking an effective balance.

Comedy movies like She’s The Man and Kicking and Screaming work because we can clearly tell the film isn’t taking itself too seriously. We can forgive the fact it looks odd when they kick a ball and the camera isn’t moving how we would normally expect, because the story is made with the intention of being fun, nothing more.

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The same goes for something like Ted Lasso, the streaming service hit on Apple TV Plus. I don’t watch the trials and tribulations of AFC Richmond because I want authenticity, I watch Ted Lasso because all of the characters are endearing and the TV series is a sweet, sincere, and humorous experience that just so happens to be about a sport I love.

Similarly, drama movies such as The Damned United or the ‘90s movie When Saturday Comes are effective because they’re not solely concerned with the action of the game, but more with the people who step onto the pitch. By resisting the temptation to overload on in-game sequences, a filmmaker can capture the essence of the sport far more successfully.

Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso

Football fans don’t need overly-edited, overly-dramatic extreme close-ups of an actor pretending to shrug off a defender before rifling the ball in the top corner of the goal. For a football movie to work, all we need is the heart and passion which makes the sport so evocative and that can be brought to the big screen far more easily in a smaller, more intimate story than it can in an all-singing, all-dancing grandiose gesture.

If football is your thing, you may be interested in finding out more about the Ted Lasso season 3 release date.