Cinema, for all its popularity, cannot compete with the power of soccer. Films such as Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther may have scored billions of dollars in box office revenue, but this is nothing compared to the expected 3.4 billion people expected to tune into the 2018 World Cup. Soccer is the prime entertainment in the universe, with nothing even coming close to taking its place.
Back in the early 2000s, FIFA wanted to capitalise on their own extraordinary success, so they produced a trilogy of films about a young Latino player and his soccer career. It would start with kickabouts in the barrios of Los Angeles before finally ascending to Champions League and later World Cup glory. Starring Kuno Becker as the plucky Santiago Munez, this undertaking could have been the perfect encapsulation of everything that makes soccer so inspiring to people across the whole world, and for the first two movies, at least, it seemed like a modest success. But with Goal III: Taking on The World, released only on video in 2009, the goalposts were irretrievably shifted, ending the trilogy on a complete downer that must qualify as one of the worst sports films of all time.
The first thing to bear in mind is that Goal III is not really about soccer at all. Little discussion is actually given to tactics, the will to succeed, and what the game means. Instead, the art of the game itself feels ancillary to the movie’s main concern: the pursuit of women. It sells you a false promise — that Santiago will take us all the way to the World Cup final — before going down a path of misogyny, sentimentality, and completely bizarre decision making. Goal III should have been a culmination of a modestly ambitious franchise; instead, it tramples on the dream completely.
The arc of poor Santiago is sidelined in favour of two almost indistinguishable and lifeless English players. They are Liam Adams (JJ Feild) and Charlie Braithwaite (Leo Gregory), two past-their-prime soccer players who have one last chance to prove themselves before their careers are over. We are introduced to these completely new characters as if we already know who they are, thus making them impossible to engage with. Therefore, whenever anything terrible does happen to them, we are given no reason to care. In a real act of betrayal, major characters from the past two films have almost all disappeared. Santiago’s girlfriend, Roz (Anna Friel), has left him, and his former agent, Glen (Stephen Dillane), is nowhere to be seen. But most egregiously, the secret star of the Goal trilogy — Gavin Harris (Alessandro Nivola) — has been completely left behind.
Gavin Harris was the most animated character of the entire Goal trilogy, an alcoholic womaniser who hosted lavish house parties and almost always turned up to training hungover. Even when his love of the drink seemed to be overshadowing his game, he still managed to score vital goals, such as the equaliser that eventually sees Real Madrid win the Champions League at the end of Goal II (Beckham, of course, scores the winning free kick). In Goal III, Gavin has been replaced by Liam Adams. He is like Gavin in every respect — he also plays alongside Santiago for Real Madrid and drinks excessively — except that he is no fun at all. The effect is like taking Jordan Belfort out of Wolf of Wall Street.
Liam is the sad, self-pitying alcoholic whom we must be given reasons to care about despite the fact we hardly even seen him kick a ball about. This central purpose is found when he bumps into June (Anya Lahiri), an old flame and the mother of his previously unknown daughter. It’s a moderately interesting set-up, but Liam is so morose and pathetic that empathising with him becomes impossible.
On top of that, we only see Santiago play soccer once in the entire movie. Once. It begins with a match between Mexico and England in the Olympiastadion, which is later revealed to be an advert playing out against a green screen. From the very beginning, director Andy Morahan is trolling the audience; yes, every soccer game in this movie will be shot on green screen, and,yes, it will look very bad, and yes, he just doesn’t care.
With a couple of weeks before the World Cup squads are announced, the boys head to Romania where Braithwaite has a starring role in a soft-core vampire porn movie (yes, this happens). These shenanigans — replete with Braithwaite dressing up as a gimp, Adams getting blotted in a local tavernă, and other stereotypes that sees all Romanians as backward gypsies — might have been relatively amusing at a skimp 10 minutes, but this detour lasts for a good half-hour. Admittedly, Braithwaite meets famous actress Sophia Tardelli (Kasia Smutniak), who later becomes a major love interest, yet for a movie about the World Cup, this feels like a sad and xenophobic detour usually reserved for no-budget British gangster movies.
Then, in one of many acts of soap opera drama, the taxi they take to Germany (yes, from Romania) suddenly crashes — knocking our injured hero Santiago straight out of the World Cup. Although ostensibly Mexican, he just hangs around our English heroes as they try and help the national team make it to the final. Why the producers of the movie moved away from the travails of our main protagonist is beyond me. Could they really not afford to pay Kuno Becker enough money? It really makes one wonder: is it even the Goal trilogy anymore if Santiago doesn’t even play soccer in it?
This is when the main draw of the film — the soccer itself — really lets us down. Stock footage of the 2006 World Cup is blended with poorly used green screen footage of its main characters — who always come on off the bench, presumably to skimp on the budget. At times, this gives the movie (released in 2009) an interesting, alternative history feel (for example, you will see Ashley Cole lump the ball forward, then suddenly Braithwaite has it outside of the box), but it mostly feels incredibly cheap — especially as these players never interact with our heroes outside of the pitch. For example, when Braithwaite literally dies from a sudden on-pitch injury, it seems excessively cruel that Lampard and Beckham couldn’t make it to pay their respects.
Additionally for soccer fans, loving the game comes at the expense of treating women with any decency. Interspersed with the story of these players is that of the Geordie Boys (seen in the previous two films), who drive a mobile caravan — decked out in full England colours — all the way to Germany. These garage workers are salt-of-the-earth lads who are as excited about the women on offer as the soccer that might be played. The sexist clichés to follow could have been funny if they were based in actual cultural stereotypes — a little like EuroTrip — but instead these women are given no dialogue and are represented primarily through what they wear. Again, its not really about soccer, but instead to merely titillate the mind of adolescent boys.
As for the main female characters; they care little about soccer itself — only about the men playing it. With little agency of their own, they are only ever seen in relation to the men’s decision-making. In a blunt, laddish way, obtaining a wife or a girlfriend here is equated with succeeding on the pitch. June is even referred to as a “prize” as valuable as a World Cup win. (A sidenote: we never see Liam and June have sex — unlike the rest of the female characters — thus combining the mother and the virgin together into the ideal woman of this misogynist movie.) Even the eventual wedding between the two is inter-spliced with footage of Italy lifting the World Cup trophy. The idea is that sometimes there are more important things in life than soccer; a noble sentiment indeed. It’s the kind of important message that makes sport films like Rocky such a success, but it’s a terrible decision for a movie that is supposed to get people excited about the World Cup itself.
Goal! was a success because it tied the drama of its central character to the sport itself. Conflict was represented through what happened on the pitch. Goal II was arguably even better (and truly camp) in the way it showed the corroding effects of fame upon professional sportsmen. Yet in Goal III, conflict is randomly introduced through sudden car crashes, deaths, and revelations as opposed to genuine character work, nearly all of it taking place outside of the confines of the game itself. This seems to be as much related to a dwindling budget as to any genuine storytelling decisions. Made on a budget of only $10 million (compared to the original’s far larger budget of $33 million), access to the pitch was obviously limited, resulting in awfully shot sport sequences that are as predictable (because 99% of what we watch already happened) as they are boring.
Soon it becomes obvious that the England campaign will finish after losing to Portugal on penalties, because that’s what actually happened in the real 2006 World Cup, and there is no more stock footage to pilfer. As a result of this lazy storytelling, Goal III is a complete reversal of everything that made the first two films modestly inspiring. It is a strange choice to backtrack on the importance of soccer itself, and seeing as this movie was literally funded by FIFA themselves, the decision to ignore the beauty of the game (or even imagine a world where England could make it to the semi-finals) is a bizarre and very costly one. Besides, in what other sports movie does the main team go out in the quarter-finals?!
The World Cup is the greatest spectacle of them all. Watching players such as Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo at the peak of their powers engage in some truly mesmerising soccer is the pinnacle of sports entertainment. In two weeks time, the world will see an uncountable amount of brilliant moments that no summer box office hit could possibly best. No movie can come close to replicating that kind of magic; it’s just a shame that Goal III doesn’t even try.