For the past six weeks or so, my life has been almost entirely devoted to watching the World Cup. Ever since USA 1994 I find myself transfixed to the screen every four years as I try my very best to catch 64 international games as they happen (this year, thanks to the wonders of streaming I managed to catch 62 or the 64 games live). Needless to say the sudden and abrupt end of the World Cup, with France claiming its second trophy, has left me in a little bit of a withdrawal funk as I have to wait all of three weeks before I see any meaningful football again. To mitigate this horrible tragedy, I spent all of last week immersed in some football documentaries. Here are the results.
(Note: Having been born outside North America, I have and will forever refer to this game as football and not “soccer”. So adjust your reading accordingly)
NOSSA CHAPE (2018) dirs. Jeff Zimbalist & Michael Zimbalist
Chapecoense is an easy football club to love: they are a small team playing in a small town in a remote corner of Brazil who claw their way from the lowest divisions all the way to the top by bonding as a family, embracing their fans, and believing in each other. And then tragedy strikes when their chartered flight, on its way to transport them for the opening leg of the Copa Sudamericana, crashes in the hills of Colombia, killing all but three members of the team and a handful to team administrators on board. Thankfully Jeff and Michael Zimbalist don’t dwell too much on the horrific tragedy – giving us all the necessary details without presuming that we could ever know the depths of that unspeakable pain – and instead embed us deep into the lives of the survivors, widows, team officials, and the city of Chapecó as they try and find some way to rebuild. A lesser documentary would try to show a direct parallel between victories on the field and the healing of the community but the Zimbalists are wise instead to show that the events on the field have a severely limited affect as the survivors deal with their almost crippling guilt, the widows find their compensations meager compared to the sizable contributions their husbands made, and the club itself struggles between papering over the legacy of their deceased team and being consumed by the heavy weight of their loss. More than anything else, Nossa Chape is a perfect example of maintaining perspective, revealing the often messy, conflicting, and human ways people try to process their grief and the impossibility of merely moving on from the past. Nossa Chape shows that no amount of success in a game can ever completely heal grief brought on by tragedy, but sometimes they can help.
NEXT GOAL WINS (2014) dirs. Mike Brett & Steve Jamison
America Samoa’s football reputation on the world stage will forever be defined by their 31-0 defeat to Australia in a World Cup Qualifying match in 2001 – the largest margin of defeat ever in an international football match. Next Goal Wins follows the chronicles of the American Samoa team after this defeat as they seek to rebuild their football reputation and with that some semblance of national pride. It is a familiar underdog story that nonetheless remains refreshingly powerful and uplifting simply because of the real-life stakes of the footballers’ plight as the vast disparity in the quality of facilities, their knowledge of the game, and their image as a running joke give them more than enough of a mountain to climb. When Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen shows up as the only candidate to apply for the job of training the team, a rugged and brash tough-guy who shows up in part to process his personal tragedy, the documentary becomes a study in the clash of cultures as his confrontational professionalism comes up against the more laid-back culture of American Samoa and part of the joy of this movie is seeing how both Rongen and his team are able to change one another. The standout of this documentary however is Jaiyah Saelua, a transgender woman who becomes the first to start in an international football match, who tackles harder than any of the boys but whose grace and joy for life is infectious. Next Goal Wins is a wonderful reminder that though football competitions tend to only crown one team to be a champion, there are many ways to win at this game.
LES BLEUS: ANOTHER HISTORY OF FRANCE, 1996-2016 (2016) dirs. Sonia Dauger & David Deitz
Compared with the previous two documentaries above, Les Bleus focuses on a team at the very centre of football, where the individuals of the French national team become more than just players in a game, but symbols to represent the larger political and social hopes of a nation. The tumultuous twenty year period chronicles many of the highs and lows of the French team during that period but is surprisingly short on actual football. Instead Sonia Dauger and David Deitz focus on how the French team, which is famously one of the most multicultural national teams in the world, is held up as an almost impossibly paragon for an idealistic view of French society while it comes up against a country that constantly wonders if that same multiculturalism is a direct threat to French identity. Featuring a multitude of talking heads from former and current members of the national team, officials within the French FA, comedians and authors, and even the French president, the documentary takes a decidedly neutral position as it tries a well-balanced view of the most tumultous events of the past two decades in France. Pondering the limitations of using sports as a metaphor for society it highlights the many ways in which success can paper over deep and heart-felt divisions of a country. Of all the talking heads Lillian Thuram, the mercurial defender of the 1998 World Cup winning team, emerges as the star with his thoughtful and provoking anecdotes. It is most definitely not a rose-tinted view of one of the more successful national teams of the 21st century, and all the more fascinating for it. Of course, this portrait of the French national team is even more intriguing now that they have ascended to the peak again.
THE TWO ESCOBARS (2010) dir. Jeff Zimbalist & Michael Zimbalist
Since the 1994 World Cup was the event that got me hooked into football, the own goal that Colombian international Andres Escobar scored while playing against the USA is one that is seared into my mind. Unfortunately I vividly remember it has little to do with the game than with the tragic news a few days later that Andres Escobar had been murdered in Medellin. At the time the impression my young mind got from the news was that this was the case of a crazed fan, upset at Colombia being eliminated from the World Cup and looking for someone to blame. What the Zimbalist brothers do in this that is so illuminating in this documentary then is in peeling back the layers and exposing the complicated relationship between Colombian football and its ties to the nation’s drug cartels. It does so by examining heroism through the parallel lives of two Escobars, neither of them related. The first, is Andres Escobar, a footballer whose heroics belonged on the field both for his club Atletico Nacional and his country. The second however, is the much more notorious Pablo Escobar whose place in Colombian hearts during his lifetime was much more complicated. His legacy is most obviously the drug cartel he ran with a terrifying grip, but his is also the story of a bizarre Robin Hood who provided ill-gotten but very tangible gains especially in providing housing for the poor, building up the football infrastructure of the country, and more importantly in protecting its beloved football players. The documentary never goes beyond a survey level in portraying either one of these figures, with Pablo in particular maintaining the notorious aura of his legend. But it is fascinating in that it shows two conflicting worldviews clashing with one another, with Andres and his soccer brethren doing whatever they can to rid the nation of its drug-lord reputation by their success on the field while Pablo, naturally, represents the other public and criminal face of the nation. Frustratingly though, the documentary sticks mostly to the facts, with hardly any effort put in to link the two Escobars or provide some larger cultural exploration of how drug-lords and football became intertwined with one another. In the end the only tangible links between the two that is expressed is the most obvious ones. Pablo is killed by Colombian forces, and with him goes his protection to the footballers. When the Colombian team, then one of the favourites to win the 1994 World Cup outright gets beaten in their opening game, it leads to death threats from the drug cartels who lost big money gambling on the game. The documentary paints a stark and tragic reality, that in a cruelly ironic twist Andres’ fate was sealed when he conceded his own goal because Pablo, the great love of Colombian football, was not there to protect him. That the two Escobars were diametrically opposed to one another and yet inevitably intertwined simply adds to this tragedy which marks the swift fall of the rising Colombian football team.
THE FOUR-YEAR PLAN (2011) dir. Mat Hodgson
The modern game is defined, for better or worse, by the influx of billionaires into the sport who buy up clubs left, right, and centre in their vain hopes of achieving a modicum of glory. The Four-Year Plan is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that chronicles the first few years of ownership by a consortium of billionaires who buy a nearly bankrupt Queens Park Rangers with the goal of returning them to the top flight in four years. The documentary is in many ways a fascinating look at the kind of incompetence that most of these billionaires, who often have no direct knowledge in managing a football club, bring to the table as the first few years is a tumultous exercise in egos clashing, unprofessional behavior, and the hiring and sacking of a half-dozen managers or so as they languish as a mid-to-low table Championship team. This is by-far the most interesting part of the documentary as the club owners move from failure to failure in the most high-stakes of situations, seemingly talking a confident game but in actuality stumbling around in the dark as the results on the field threaten to make the sortie into football ownership a disastrous one. When the results inevitably turn around, it papers over most of the incompetencies of the club giving the veneer of real progress being made, leading to a conventionally uplifting ending, which is hardly the documentary crews’ fault as this is simply what happened. But a look at the QPR’s current standing today reveals that any celebration regarding a miraculous turnaround is decidedly premature.