Saturday, 29 April 2006

The Goal is Going Global

Goal!, a movie released without much fanfare into our cinemas very recently, could play an important part in a renewed imperial campaign being fought on our shores. The global might and vast resources of FIFA (the world football governing body) are being deployed against some powerful and resilient defences – mainly set up by the AFL but with the support of the two rugby codes, all of which are involved in their own programs of geographic expansion.

One of the primary ideological defences of these codes has been the cultural denigration of football (or soccer as it is called in all countries where it is not the dominant sport). The late Johnny Warren called it the ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters' mentality: the idea that the game is not one for real men – real anglo-celtic men, that is.

FIFA has the economic muscle to wage and win a long war but to get the war over more quickly it needs to win ideological battles first. This is where Goal! comes in.

Supported and sanctioned by FIFA, Goal! is the story of the rise and rise of a football-loving Mexican boy, Santiago Munez into the English Premier League. It puts the kind of passion we saw in November when Australia qualified for the World Cup into a fictional but no less affective form.

For all its Hollywood schmaltz and contrivance, Goal! is riveting – a compelling and magical story of a boy who refuses to give up his dream despite hurdle after hurdle in his way. The ending has all the audience on the edge of their seats – much like the ending of a tense football match. When Santiago scores the goal that puts Newcastle United into Europe, the on-screen (and off-screen) outpouring of emotion is, again, familiar to any football supporter.

Beneath the slick storyline is a kind of realism not usually captured in sports movies. The bleak and spectacular Northumberland coast, the driving rain and bitter cold of a winter in north east England, the beautiful rhythms and sounds of Geordie dialect and the mad banter of football supporters – not to mention the black pudding – produce a texture that owes as much to the documentary realism of Ken Loach as it does to the fantasy of Hollywood. Unlike a lot of sports movies, the crowd scenes are convincing and the way the actors have been spliced into footage of actual games is seamless and convincing. The cameo performances of stars of the game (Raul, Zidane, Beckham) are appropriately understated and charming.

The four young boys who accompanied me walked out of the cinema uplifted and with stars in their eyes.

But Goal! is more than a very entertaining movie. It is also a piece of FIFA propaganda that is meant to sway youngsters and their parents to the world game.

Significantly, for Australian audiences, Goal! does some subtle ideological work. Santiago's exuberant skills and selfish play are modified for the (supposedly) more physically demanding English game. The Latino temperament makes way for English graft and physical aggression. At one point the Newcastle coach says to Santiago, “Maybe you don't have the pace and stamina for the English game.” Santiago proves in the end that he is able to ‘anglicise' himself.

Make no mistake, this movie is about the pointy end of sport capitalism and at stake are the hearts and minds and wallets of football supporters of all codes in this country and around the world.

While the conquest of Australia is important to the world game, there are two far more important markets that have been in FIFA's sights over the past two decades: China and the USA. China seems smoothly to be taking to the world game whereas the USA is proving to be a much more difficult citadel to capture.

Soccerphobia is one of the USA's most important defence mechanisms for its domestic sport. In How Soccer Explains the World , American journalist Franklin Foer argues that many of the louder voices in American public culture hate football with a vengeance. It's a hatred that crosses political lines and the game is seen as one for wimps, girls, Latinos and middle-class ‘soccer moms' afraid to let their boys play ‘manly' games. There's a strong correlation here with the old-fashioned Australian attitudes towards the game.

But the USA goes even further in its fear and loathing. Despite the fact that association football is organised worldwide on far more competitive and capitalistic bases than is the draft-ridden and salary-capped NFL, the game is sometimes derided in the USA as politically correct, liberal or even socialistic. To Foer, the confused rhetoric of right-wing shock jocks suggests that the American fear of soccer is ultimately a fear of globalisation. And this is where Goal! makes its most searching observations of contemporary USA.

In the opening scene, Santiago and his family are planning to enter the US illegally, under the cover of night. Santiago is woken and told by his father to hurry and get his things together. One of these things is his most precious possession, a football. As the family are hurrying through a gap in the border fence, pursued by border guards, Santiago drops the ball. When he stops to consider returning to get it his father Hernan stops him, urging him to hurry “leave that stupid ball” behind.

Symbolically, football has been shut out at an American border that has nonetheless allowed the politically loathed but economically necessary illegal Mexican immigrants to pass through.

The action then jumps ahead ten years with the Munez family settled in Los Angeles. Santiago and Hernan are working as gardeners for rich clients.

Despite having lost his precious ball, Santiago's passion for the game has been retained and strengthened and he stars in minor local competitions. His games are played on dustbowls where no grass has taken root or on fields marked out on a still-evident grid iron. The message is that the game is an alien one. Like Santiago, football cannot get a Green Card.

This seems to be Santiago's lot until he is spotted by a visiting talent scout, Glen Foy – one-time player with Newcastle United. Foy contrives to get Santiago a trial with Newcastle – as long as he can pay his own way over – bringing Santiago into conflict with his father, who believes that the idea is utter foolishness. To Hernan there are two types of people in the world: those who own the big houses and those who do their gardening or wash their cars. It represents a class divide that is impossible to cross. The American Dream does not apply to the section of the American population among which the Munez family lives.

Despite Hernan's objections, and with his grandmother Mercedes' covert financial aid, Santiago makes his way to Newcastle to begin his struggle to make it in the top flight of English football.

While this section is only the first third of Goal!, it's the part where the movie's politics are laid bare. Its makers clearly see the USA as a class-ridden and culturally protectionist society. The one delicious and central irony in all of this is that in order to achieve what was once thought of as the American Dream, Santiago needs to leave America and go to the banks of the once-decrepit Tyne at the heart of post-industrial working class Britain to achieve his goal.

As FIFA propaganda this movie has done a lot of work already in Australia and elsewhere. And it will keep on doing so.

More significant than this, it may well be signalling the beginning of the end of football's attempt to woo the USA to its cause. Goal! didn't need to be set in LA. It would have worked equally well had Foy found Santiago playing in any part of Central America. The only purpose of setting it in America seems to have been to reject that country as a place where the world game can take root and flourish. This could mean one of two things: FIFA has given up on favouring the USA; or it has seen the beginnings of the demise of the American empire. Perhaps both.

When an organisation as large and as powerful as FIFA starts making oblique observations such as these we can only sit up and take note. They give us pause to contemplate the future of the American empire and its role in global politics.

Goal! is the first in a trilogy. Perhaps the next two instalments will clarify the political and economic programs FIFA is implementing. Clearer is the impact Australia's qualification for the World Cup has had on the screenplay of the third movie. The movie's Australian producer, Matt Barrelle has changed the script to feature the Australian team and local fans.

It remains to be seen what the lasting impact of this trilogy will be on the stocks of association football in Australia. Initially it will be no surprise if it attracts large attendances in Australian cinemas because the word of mouth will be strong. And in this World Cup year word will travel easily.

Had a movie like Goal! come to our shores ten years ago, it would have had a brief success only to be forgotten within months. Periodic spikes of mass interest is the story of Australian football in the past few decades in this country. Twice, more than 80,000 have turned up to support the Socceroos at the MCG. Full houses of more than 40,000 have seen National Soccer League grand finals at Lang Park in Brisbane and Subiaco Oval in Perth. At each point, after a brief surge of interest, ‘soccer' was returned by the media to its ‘rightful' place on the edge of the sporting map.

Recently things seem to have changed – though a history of false dawns for Australian football keeps those of us who care prepared for the worst.

Three letters say it all: WCQ. One mad night in November, Australia achieved a victory for which very few dared to hope. At Telstra Stadium in Sydney, we qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years. It was a moment of intense climax and celebration. It revealed the passion of the world game to a gobsmacked Australia, a good part of which was trying to come to terms with the sheer ratings fact that this was much bigger than most AFL grand finals of recent years.

Alongside this, the rejuvenated national club competition, the A League has seen outstanding crowd averages. This weekend's grand final between Sydney United and the Central Coast Mariners will fill the 43,000 seat Aussie Stadium in Sydney. At the end of March Australia will play European champions, Greece at a more than likely packed MCG before trotting off to compete in the world's biggest sporting event, the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The gaps between the spikes seem to be shortening.

The world game and its existence here are now firmly planted in the minds of a lot of Australians who might previously have seen it a foreign game – despite its 120-year history in this country. The game still has its many detractors. But even they have glimpsed the passion.

This is why I think Goal! has the capacity to help change the sporting landscape in this country permanently. If for no other reason than it's hard to walk out of this movie believing that football is a game only for sheilas, wogs and poofters. It will take more than this movie to convert the true disbelievers but it will help to soften even the hardest anti-soccer heart.

First published in the Age, April 29 2006

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