Goal! Is 15 Years Old Today
In 2005, film and football collided in a crowd-pleaser so galvanising, it came equipped with its own exclamation point: Goal!
Historically, football – real football I mean, not American football, not ‘soccer’ – hasn’t fared all that well at the movies. Not in quality, but legacy, scope, ambition. The UK’s ‘beautiful game’ rarely takes the movie spotlight; more of a backseat to parody, culture and hooliganism.
Of course, there are exceptions: Bend It Like Beckham; The Damned United; There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble; and notably, Goal! – a can-do underdog story that shamelessly bottles every sports cliché under the sun, and somehow conjures the magic to feel the dream beginning.
We open in a frenzy: a young Mexican boy ferried across the border by his father, alongside other immigrants seeking a better life. As they climb a dusty trail to the fence, his football falls to the bottom. The lights glow with doom, the sirens glow louder, he fights the temptation. ‘Leave the stupid ball,’ his dad barks. He obeys, and we cut to black.
Ten years later, we’re in LA. An older Santiago Muñez (Kuno Becker) lies sun-spectacled on a pool lounger outside a small mansion. For only a moment, he’s free… until: ‘Santiago! Stop goofing off!’
In his early twenties, Santiago’s day-to-day is simple: he works with his dad, puts in a shift at a Chinese restaurant (where he’ll never be a waiter, because he’s not Chinese) and puts money away for a rainy day in his closet boot.
His blue-collar dad (Tony Plana) wants to buy a pickup truck to start his own Muñez and Son business, much to his son’s reluctance. In between, armed with cardboard shinpads and an inhaler, he plays football with the local team.
‘His balance is all wrong, he doesn’t look up enough, doesn’t lift his legs high enough,’ says Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane) a passing-by Scottish spectator who just so happens to be a former Newcastle United player and scout. Then, Goal! ‘Did you teach him that?’ he asks the coach, who replies, ‘God taught him.’
Through Glen’s fortuitous kindness, Santiago is offered a chance: if he can get to England, Newcastle United will offer him a trial. Obviously, he makes it across the pond, quickly thrown into a fish-out-of-water whirlwind of hard British attitudes, professional-level endurance, love and fame.
At the start of production, it was initially in the hands of 24 Hour Party People and The Trip’s Michael Winterbottom, with Stellan Skarsgård set to star (presumably in Marcel Iures’s manager role, brilliantly modelled on Arsene Wenger to the film’s benefit).
Both departed, leaving the Disney project with Judge Dredd’s Danny Cannon. Who knows what might have been, but the eventual director’s track record in CSI’s TV legacy undoubtedly lent its hand to Goal!’s stereotypical nature. From one procedural to another, basically.
Here’s the important detail: it was made with full cooperation with FIFA, enabling crazy levels of access and a roster of cameos from Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham’s hilariously wooden club scene, to Alan Shearer’s recurring cheeky smiles, to the quick flickers of Steven Gerrard and Rafael Benitez. At the time, the $50 million collaboration between the producers and Adidas was the biggest of its kind in history.
This is a film that loves the sport. It’s capably and enthralling directed, with quick-footed action cinematography from Michael Barrett on match days, blending Becker’s up-and-comer seamlessly with a real-life match.
The propulsion, the physicality of the tackles, the enhanced bristling of the net, the booming cheers; bar couple of iffy CGI bits, it ignites delirium in any sports agnostic. For years after, Santiago would be my go-to custom FIFA player.
Even the soaring shots of St. James Park, camera gliding above the arena and across the pitch, spark a little tingle – particularly with the curated soundtrack of certified British bangers, with a heavy dose of Oasis, Happy Mondays, Kasabian (Club Foot still makes me want to play), and others.
As Cast No Shadow scores the cold, damp crashing tides of the seaside, misery quickly makes poetry. Elsewhere, as the rhythm of Gipsy Kings electrifies Santiago’s glory-hunting dribble, you wanna grab your mates for a game of cuppies.
Graeme Revell’s composition, an affecting mix of gentle guitar, marimba and obvious, still thunderous orchestra, also enlarges that guilty lump in your throat. You’re played like a fiddle, sent on a collision course with an inevitability, yet elation arrives all the same (even with a freeze frame).
Adrian Butchart, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Mike Jefferies all wrote the script, the latter of whom being responsible for Goal II: Living the Dream – bad – and Goal III: Taking on the World – incomprehensibly awful.
Sequel-baiting and success aside, a few notes: 15 years on, four white screenwriters penning a script around the Mexican immigration experience and the illusions of the American dream (Santiago’s brother says, ‘We win the lottery!’) seems… iffy.
There’s also every cliché and trope in the playbook: a disapproving father, a caring grandmother with savings, the agent with gel-tipped arrogance, the Scottish man with the most hilariously Scottish name, discrimination and bullying the new player, the constant rising and falling of his Newcastle success and the prerequisite girlfriend (although charmingly played by Anna Friel).
The most outrageous example, and you can’t help but laugh, is the warping of time and space the film invokes for an afternoon Newcastle match to be showing in not just any Los Angeles pub, but one adorned with Newcastle jerseys and full of fans (including AC/DC’s Brian Johnson).
Other areas pleasantly surprise: a sex scene is swiftly skipped, relationship drama isn’t too overwrought, Iures’s ‘the ball can travel faster than you’ scene, and Alessandro Nivola steals the show as Gavin Harris, a playboy striker who battles pedestrians’ calls of ‘you’re sh*te’ and his own scrappiness.
Little moments let the UK’s cynicism sing, like a schoolboy complimenting Santiago’s ‘tasty’ skills, to which his pal says, ‘Aye, if you’re in the circus!’
The father-son dynamic, while in no way groundbreaking, mostly side-steps schmaltz for something more poignant. There’s something immovably sad about his dad’s disbelief at chasing a dream, as he says, ‘There are two types of people in this world: those who live in big houses, and people like us who cut their lawns and wash their cars.’
Before he left, their ideas of how you ‘measure a life’ never levelled out. Continents apart, their spirits align in the end, forgiveness is met. ‘That’s my boy.’
Cheesy, predictable, stuffed with melodrama; yet its fantasy is pure, one dreamed by thousands, nay, millions of kids kicking a ball around a garden, street or field somewhere in the world. Goal! has a simple message: you can keep your feet on the ground and your head in the sky.
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