"You want to know why soccer is the world's greatest sport? I'll tell you why. Because all you need is the ball and an open space. You don't need fancy equipment or special fields; you don't have to be big or strong or tall. It's the most democratic of all the sports. The people's game. Your people's game. And America's game of the future."
When Bristol Bay producer Howard Baldwin approached director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo to make an inspirational American soccer movie, he hoped the duo known for romantic sports classics Rudy and Hoosiers could team up to deliver another box office score.
But while the movie will surely delight sports fans with its passionate account of a band of patriotic underdogs, its production value and acting quality fall a little short of the goal mouth.
In 1950, the United States was extended an invitation to the World Cup in Brazil. While accepting an offer to the world's most prestigious sporting event might seem an easy decision, American organizers had one big problem - they had no team.
Trying to seize the opportunity to grow the sport in the country, strong willed manager Bill Jeffrey (John Rhys-Davies), hastened to form and develop a squad in ten days by culling players from the loosely organized east coast amateur leagues as well as from Marquette Park, an St. Louis Italian neighborhood known locally as "The Hill".
The resulting team overcame ethnic differences, a small budget and an impossibly short training period to astonish the international soccer world with an upset of tournament favorite England by a score of 1-0.
The film focuses on the St Louis players, Frank Borghi (Gerard Butler), Harry Keough (Zachery Bryan), Gino Pariani (Louis Mandylor), Charles "Gloves" Colombo (Costas Mandylor), as well as Philadelphia half-back and de facto captain, Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley).
Few of the players had international experience, but they put their working class lives on hold out of sheer passion for the game and a profound sense of duty to their country. When Pariani initially declines to participate in the World Cup as it conflicts with his imminent wedding, his fiancé's father reprimands him, "I don't ever want to see that look on your face again. This a chance to represent your country...You're having the wedding this Saturday before you leave."
Gem quotes like this will be sure to bring a smile to the faces of American soccer fans, and, at times, the film seems to be speaking as much to the plight of soccer in today's sports landscape as that of the films era. When Walter Bahr and Frank Borghi attempt to recruit Haitian born Joe Gaetjens (Jimmy Jean-Louis), the kitchen worker inquires, "What kind of style do you play?" Borghi deadpans, "We don't have a style yet...but we're working on it".
While sports movie clichés abound and many of the scenes are extremely flat, the filmmakers do an effective job of presenting the team as a metaphor for the American identity: a melting pot of ethnic backgrounds that overcome personal differences to achieve something greater than themselves. Most of the team was realistic about their chances against world juggernaut England, and wanted nothing more than a respectable showing.
"It was like, in a baseball analogy, a Class D team going up against the Yankees, and beating them," Pizzo asserts.
After a resounding defeat by England in a pre-cup scrimmage, the Yanks are inspired by a shared hatred of the imperious English to strive for more. English striker Stanley Mortenson (Gavin Rossdale of the rock group Bush), provides the antagonizing fodder at a banquet speech in which he snidely warns the rough hewn Americans "prepare to be taken to soccer school". The entire team is incensed much to the satisfaction of captain Walter Bahr, who exclaims "At last, someone else is talking about actually winning."
The film's cast is not a star-studded roster, and the budget was apparently tight as many of the scenes are weak and predictable. The dialogue seems like recycled hash from pretty much any sports film one can recall.
But while they conserve on high profile celebrity value, they went rich with soccer talent as well as period authenticity. Producer Ginger Perkins recalls, "We interviewed every possible actor that could play soccer and held tryouts in six cities. And we had about 4,000 soccer player show up to audition for extras roles."
Soccer fans will like to note that former USMNT great Eric Wynalda served as soccer consultant and extra and U.S. teammate John Harkes makes his screen debut as Ed McIlvenny, insuring that the on-screen play is dynamic and believable.
Once the match begins, all the shallow dialogue and acting fade in importance as the film treats the match as the main event deftly using the commentary of an English radio journalist to drive the importance of each play. Viewers can feel the impact of a hard tackle, the pain of players getting dirt kicked in their faces, and the intricate foot skill and strategy employed by the actors.
In the match, the Americans notch a first half goal by Gaetjens assisted by Bahr and then withstand a relentless British attack to hold on for the victory. At the final whistle, Brazilian fans, overcome by the gutsy U.S. effort, swarm the American players as they try to leave the pitch.
Before the World Cup Qualifier between the United States and Guatemala, event organizers invited some of the attending media, among them YA, to a preview of the film.
The lucky few on hand for the special screening were also treated to insights and reminisces by Bahr himself, who also helped sort out where the film found net and where it shot wide.
"The movie depicts that we played a defensive game in the second half. We didn't do that," insists Bahr. "We didn't just sit 11 players across the goal mouth. I never played for a team that did that. We held the philosophy that a good defense was a good offense."
Bahr added that the United States almost sealed the game in the second half. "We continued to try to score and almost did. In the second half, the keeper was beaten on a play and the ball had to be cleared off the line by a back.
"I would've like to have seen the Spain game represented. I always felt that was our best game," he later opined. "Had we tried to sit back and protect the lead, I think we would have won that game as well."
The film also contrives a rift between Bahr and older team manager Bill Jeffrey, another point that Bahr stated was off the mark. "I wish Jeffrey had been portrayed differently. He was a fine man and not difficult like the film portrayed."
On the implied cultural tension felt between the white players and Haitian Joe Gaetjens, Bahr maintains that the team had no such friction. "There was no racial tension between our team and Gaetjens. We had several black players in our leagues [on the east coast]. We were all happy to meet each other and we got along fine."
When asked how the importance of that victory has been perceived, Bahr chuckles that even they did not really appreciate it for what is was, that they simply returned home and went back to work.
"We've gotten our share of accolades. But when we got home nobody was even aware of what we'd done. We've received more attention in the last 25 years than we did in the first 25. Even now, I'm sometimes [incorrectly] introduced as a member of the team that won the World Cup."
All in all, Mr. Bahr was pleased with the movie and says it did an adequate job of representing the event.
"I just hope that maybe the film will help promote soccer a little bit."
In short, while the film does a poor job of manufacturing character to character conflict, the intrinsic drama of the real life event can raise enough goose bumps for the typical moviegoer and soccer fan to enjoy.
The Game of Their Lives opens on Friday in select theaters nationwide.