Tuesday, September 2, 2008
A Sunday Afternoon, sometime in the mid 1980s. There was never much on tv on Sundays. Old films. Westerns, English dramas from the 40s and 50s. The steady march towards Bullseye and Songs of Praise.
One Sunday, I come across some football on tv. It is unmistakably Brazil. Those yellow shirts, the blue shorts, lean shaggy haired players. But it looks different. The camera is at ground level, roaming around, tracking players as they move across the pitch in tight close-up. The ball is rarely if ever in shot. Instead we can identify where it is by following the eyes of the players, so tightly are the cameras focused upon them. And the commentator. It sounds like - can't be - it sounds like Sean Connery. I am spellbound.
That film was "G'Ole!", the Official FIFA film for the 1982 World Cup. FIFA continue to make an Official film for each World Cup, but the form peaked in the 1980s, with "G'Ole!" and its 1986 follow-up, "Hero". Until very recently I hadn't seen "G'Ole!" in full since that initial viewing on a sunday in the 80s, when I must have been 10 or 11. Its became more and more difficult to get hold of. Unavailable on DVD, videotapes change hands for ridiculous amounts on eBay. It seems odd that FIFA continue to make these films but show no regard for the archive they possess. Clips from these films show up in various other Football documentaries - the brilliant 2006 BBC series "World Cup Stories" (oddly, also unavailable on DVD) was built around various sequences - and they always stand out due to the quality of the footage. There is only one clip from "G'Ole!" on YouTube, but it does manage to convey in 4 minutes or so the exact tone and feel of these films - the amazing, intimate footage, the distracting, often awful music, the epic tone the games are embued with. And of course, Sean Connery saying "Barshalona":
The strangest fact of these films is that they are so vulnerably at the mercy of their director. FIFA might have commissioned a piece which made great use of the exclusive footage they could provide, but it seems doubtful they were quite prepared for how idiosyncratic the results might be. Directors have agendas, stories they are determined to tell, images they wish to include, themes they need to address. FIFA just wanted goals compilations, you feel.
"G'Ole!" was directed by Tom Clegg, best known at that time for "McVicar" (1980), and since then something of a jobbing television director. Clegg, with the aid of writer Stan Hey, seems set upon painting a lyrical portrait of Spain as a beachside utopia, its people uncorrupted by the modern world, living in their beautiful small towns beneath the fiercely blue Iberian skies. There is one montage midway through the film which is filled with shots of old people sitting chatting in town squares, sophisticates at outdoor cafes, children playing and crowds at the beach. The football almost takes a back seat, as Clegg indulges his interest in the World Cup as carnival. There is perhaps slightly too much footage of fans dancing and chanting and drinking, alongside one too many trips to the stadium on the team coach, and the film loses focus towards its climax. Its also bizarrely lecherous - topless sunbathers in the Mediterranean draw a lot of the camera's attention, as so bikinis glimpsed on dancing girls in the Brazilian crowd. Clegg dips in and out of the tournament, allowing us to briefly visit with various sides. So we start off with Maradona and Argentina, then move on to Brazil, France, Spain, Italy and England. Other teams appear in games, as if from nowhere. Poland suddenly materialize in the semi-final, despite not having featured at any point in the hour before. But Clegg is plainly fascinated by minnows. He spends extended passages locked with the Kiwi and Cameroonian teams, watching them at their hotel bases, following them to the stadium and observing their team talks, their running onto the pitch, their valiant failures. The players are generally denied personality - we hear their names, but their roles are quickly sketched stock ones. Platini is skillful, Robson bright and aggressive, Maradona fouled, Rossi redeemed. Nationalities are defined by cliches, too - the relaxed Brazilians, engaged always in Samba, the resilient, methodical Germans. We are expected, it seems, to already know who these players and teams are and what they mean.
But despite its many quirks,"G'Ole!" is still a fantastic piece of work. Mainly because it features so much incredible footage. The 1982 World Cup was a vintage competition, containing perhaps the greatest game in the competition's history - Brazil vs Italy. Spain, at that time still something of a post-Franco backwater, has always been a beautiful, cinematic location, and Clegg and his team shoot and edit the whole thing so that it is all atmospheric and visually arresting. Connery is incomparable and Rick Wakeman's score is not the abomination that his work on the next FIFA film would be. But its the raw material that makes it all work, and in the 1980s there were a handful of giants in International football who these films focus on - Maradona, Platini, Zico, Ruminegge. To see any of them on a pitch, shot so intimately, so cinematically, is thrilling for a nostalgic football fan.
"Hero" is just as strange and fascinating an experience. Written and directed by Tony Maylam, otherwise best known for either his stiff adaptation of "The Riddle of the Sands" (1979) or his cult horror "The Burning" (1981), it tells the story of a tournament in a determinedly poetic and personal way. At the same time, it is hilariously bombastic and epic in its treatment of a ball game, creating an odd but effective dynamic. Maylam focuses on a series of individuals - each of whom could be the "Hero" of the title - and his cameras follow them in flashes through a game, creating a mini-narrative within the wider story of the World Cup itself. What makes "Hero" so sublime is the choice of players - some of the finest in the world at that time; including Michael Laudrup, Enzo Francescoli, Hugo Sanchez, the aforementioned Platini and Zico, and Emilio Butragueno.
But football is a game primarily concerned with the creation, identification and use of space on the pitch. Accurate passing and individual technique - dribbling ability, the skill to beat a man - come to the fore. As such, television cameras are ideally located to capture the most vital action on the pitch. From their position above and to the side, tv cameras can show us the wider picture - tactical configurations, movement off the ball, the spaces opening and closing all around - while also showcasing the vignettes of skill from individuals involved in the play. Both "G'Ole" and "Hero" virtually ignore the former aspect of the game in their zeal to glorify the latter. The films are both shot by cameras at ground level on the side of the pitch, so that we see the action as the players do. The field becomes a three dimensional system of moving lines, ripples of motion, the ball crossing and creating these lines, the players dancers and warriors, clashing, slipping past one another with feints, bursts of speed, rapid passes. "G'Ole!" contains more passages viewed from the traditional angle, but "Hero" embraces its predecessor's innovations wholeheartedly, and long sequences are seen from pitch level. Occasionally Maylam will cut away to show us the actual tv coverage of a goal or a vital moment. So we witness Maradona's extraordinary second goal against England with commentary by the BBC's man : "And that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the World!" But for the most part the voice we hear is that of Michael Caine, his narration slightly removed, affectless, even ironic.
Of course the real "Hero" of the film is Maradona himself, and the last half hour effectively follows his progress through the latter stages of the tournament. He had a big role in "G'Ole", too, with an extended segment showing his brutal treatment first by the Italian, then the Brazilian team, climaxing in his sending off for retaliation. An early scene in "Hero" shows him being kicked and hacked to the ground time and again versus South Korea, but his first goal seems to liberate him - as the film itself acknowledges - and from then on the camera is more interested in his brilliance in manipulating the ball. Francescoli instead is shown being stymied by rough treatment, battered as he is by the Danes in a 6-1 defeat for Uruguay. Its an odd, elliptical approach to a portrayal of a tournament, leaving out so many goals, players and incidents, and yet it works. It self-consciously casts these matches as epic narratives, with heroes and heroic acts, high stakes and gripping climaxes. Maradona alone seems to have read the script, and he provides the film with everything it needs to succeed. The last 20 minutes of the film follow his Argentina through the final against West Germany, and it is loaded with importance, it feels thrillingly epic. Rick Wakeman's score almost spoils it, but what could possibly spoil Maradona's effortless first-time pass for the winning goal or his surging run past four Germans?
What makes these films feel significant is that they feel like the birthplace of modern football coverage. In the 1980s, there were not multiple camera angles of each and every moment available to television viewers, there weren't steadicam operators running along the touchline, automated cameras located above the pitch on wires, cameras behind the goals, cameras in the tunnel. There was one camera. There was no footage of the beautiful girls in the crowd, the crazily face-painted foreign fans playing drums and dancing. There was one camera. It followed the ball around the pitch. Slow motion replays showed the same shot - from that single camera - again and again, just more slowly.
Whereas nowadays modern football coverage looks like "G'Ole!" and "Hero" did. Classily shot and edited, with every single conceivable angle covered by one camera or other. The crowd cut to throughout, the benches watched. Sky had a digital option a few seasons ago where the camera followed a single player throughout a game, if the viewer wished. These films have been surpassed by tv.
Which is the major problem faced by the contemporary FIFA films. The only subsequent one I've seen the entirety of is "The Grand Finale", the film of the 2006 Finals, directed by Michael Apted and narrated by Pierce Brosnan. You might imagine that in this age of YouTube and Goals compilation dvds FIFA would crave a more personal, even slightly pretentious treatment of a tournament, but no - "The Grand Finale" is a goal compilation film with padding, in essence. It focuses on seemingly random games without much context as to what is occurring throughout the rest of the competition, so we see Spain tonk Ukraine 4-0 and are told they were eliminated in their first knockout game. Argentina are introduced with an onscreen count of the number of passes in the lead up to their amazing goal against Serbia, the only action shown from that game. We briefly glimpse Brazil beat Ghana 3-0 in the first knockout round and Brosnan tells us that France subsequently knocked them out. The Epic sense of the earlier films is entirely absent, the sense of continuity and coherent narrative close behind. What we get is mainly the same shots I saw on tv as I wactched these games with a few nice passages thrown in. There is no obtrusive soundtrack (instead we hear the crowd noises, its sighs and roars, loud over the top) , no lyricism, no attempted poetry. It all feels hard, slick, empty, depressingly modern. As does the football played. Watching it soon after viewing "Hero" and "G'Ole!", the pace of the games is shocking. In the 80s, teams played football almost languidly - Brazil stroked it fondly to one another, players trotting about the pitch with their socks rolled down to reveal shinguard-less legs. Now the ball pings about, everybody sprints, tackles erupt in seconds. Even Argentina, guided by Riquelme's slow-slow-slower-quick-quick-slow style knock the ball around at amazing speed. Maybe the cooler climate (Germany, compared wit Spain and Mexico) is responsible. But I think the game has changed in this regard. Perhaps that is why "The Grand Finale" is so lacking in stars comparable to the giants of those films of the 80s. Artistry is more difficult at 1000 miles an hour. For Film directors too, apparently.