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The Five Files

Whenever you draw a top five list for anything, you are bound to provoke a few terse arguments. When the list is about sport, however, you are likely to set off a paroxysm of disagreement and angst. Or so we at the Harbus hope anyway. In this new and exciting sports feature, we invite our readers to contribute a sporting top five on any topic of their choice.

The Harbus is interested in both the mainstream (e.g. Top 5 Basketballers of All Time) and the quirky (e.g. Top 5 Irish Tiddlywinks Players of All Time).

We start today with the most popular sporting game in the world – soccer.

Despite the hype around many other sports, soccer is the only sport that can truly claim to be global. That said, it is surprising to find soccer relatively unrepresented on the big screen. While mass-marketed small-screen pap like The1000 Best Goals and Hairstyles of David Beckham blaze a well-worn trail from Manchester (or, more recently, Madrid) to Christmas stockings to trash cans, quality cinema is hard to find. However, devoted viewers will realize that there are some gems out there. Not as many gems as we saw on the fingers of RC ladies after winter break, but at least five classics.

5. Fever Pitch (1999)
This film is an excellent adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel from Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy). In it, Colin Firth plays Paul, an Arsenal supporter, who supports his team with an almost religious fervor. His soccer world collides with the real world when he begins dating Sarah (Ruth Gemmel) and his obsessions stand in the way of an otherwise functional relationship. The film gets most of its laughs from Paul’s ubiquitous fandom, but gets most of its appeal from something else.

Hornby portrays the English male psyche and its attachment to soccer with a deft mix of empathy and antipathy.

4. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)
Thorold Dickinson’s film is notable as much for its pre-war, milieu-de-siecle angst, as it is for its potent plot. During a soccer match in London, a player is mysteriously poisoned, leading to a story of much intrigue, classic British dialogue, and of course, soccer. Perhaps not the cinematic masterpiece of the other four films here, but a notable mention, if only for its historical significance.

3. Yesterday’s Hero (1979)
Neil Leifer’s film has a predictable enough plot, as it charts the resurgence of a 30-plus year old former soccer star (played by Ian McShane) who has descended into a spiral of alcoholism. His renaissance comes in the form of a spirited American woman (Suzanne Somers) who helps him in his path back to glory. The plot is rubbish, but the film is an interesting comment of the hedonism of 1970s soccer in the UK, and shadows the life of George Best, perhaps England’s greatest player, who has similarly spent most of the last 30 years in a stupor. The messages of the film are still current, as the mistakes driven by too much money and free time are still splashed over the world’s tabloids and broadsheets alike.

2. Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Narrowly beaten into second place, this is a sublime film from Gurinder Chadha. Indian-English teenager Jess wants to play soccer, and has a natural flair for the game. She strikes up a friendship with her vibrant teammate Jules (Keira Knightley). Needless to say, Jess’ Indian parents detest the idea of a soccer-playing daughter, and various cultural shenanigans ensue. Along with the sport and samosa jokes, there is romance, laughter, tears, and an overwhelming sense of pathos in this film. It would be too easy to dismiss it as trite, but the millions who have seen it will always sing its praises.

1. Escape To Victory (1981)
For many, this is ‘the’ soccer film, and it’s easy to see why. Director John Huston assembles an all-star cast, including Pele, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, and Max von Sydow. Set during World War II, a soccer team is selected to play against a Nazi team, and is co-opted to play a part in a daring tunnel escape in Paris. The plot is perhaps implausible, but superbly rendered by this cast. The film is careful to give equal weight to the sport and the war, and uses each as a resonant metaphor for the other. See this film for Pele’s amazing overhead kick (apparently filmed in one take), for Stallone’s wooden, but oddly convincing, acting, or for its smart pace. But do see it. It is the greatest soccer film ever made.

January 20, 2004
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