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We Always Have Time for One More 'Game of Our Lives'
Surprisingly lost amid the hoopla surrounding recently announced Oscar nominations lies a concealed gem: The Game of Their Lives, a film based on the U.S. men's soccer victory over England in the 1950 World Cup finals, releases to U.S. theaters on April 22. (The film is not to be confused with the 2003 documentary The Game of Their Lives, released in the U.K. and recently shown on the Sundance Channel, about the success of the North Korean team in the 1966 World Cup finals.) Somehow Variety did not feel the news item merited bloated sans serif headlines: "Ball's in Play for Ace Soc Jox." Our excitement is tempered, though, by foreboding surrounding the signature elements of the period sports-film genre: the swelling musical score, the guys-in-khakis-palling-around-in-the-neighborhood sequences, the steely manager looking for some heart, the stop-action montages, and the inevitable "game to end all games"—"the game of their lives," in this case.

See the same picture of these dudes, only bigger
Just hanging out, waiting for the game of their lives to begin. See gameoftheirlivesmovie.com for more, when there is more. (IFC Films)

That soccer merits the full treatment from director David Anspaugh, maker of Hoosiers (basketball) and Rudy (American college football), is of interest. Using the world game to narrate a strikingly atypical U.S. triumph seems cheeky, like casting Sylvester Stallone as a diamond-in-the-rough netminder in Victory. The cheekiness is noted by commentators on bulletin boards at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Beneath a discussion thread titled "Most biased sports movie ever?" nom de Web "warrior_91" writes:

I'm . . . saying this as a proud citizen of the USA. Seriously people, upsets happen all the time, especially in soccer (not to mention the score was only 1–0). Why the heck is this being called "One of The Greatest Moments in Sports History"??? Firstly, the US didn't even end up coming close to winning the World Cup. Secondly, as I said before, upsets happen all the time in soccer, why not make a movie about Italy's loss to Korea at the 2002 World Cup instead? Or how about France's World Cup win against Brazil in 1998? These 2 moments are a heck of a lot bigger than the USA's defeat of England. Let's face it, the only reason why a major motion picture is being made about this, and the only reason why it is known as "One of The Greatest Moments in Sports History," is simply because it happened to Americans.

We disagree with many of the sentiments above, and we have edited "Warrior's" syntax—if we may call him (or her) "Warrior"—in minor ways. Personally, we would like to see a film project titled "The Workout of Their Lives" to take place at our local YMCA, featuring preening men in front of massive mirrors, lustily applying deodorant and continuously emitting grunts and exhalings of pleasure at their own fitness regimens. Anyway, "Warrior's" musings elicited a frenzy of responses, the best asking potential viewers not to prejudge the film (we're probably guilty of this) and to read the book on which the film is based (we have not done this).

The book, The Game of Their Lives (1996), by Geoffrey Douglas, will be reissued in April in paperback. Based on reviews, the book delves into the

Recommended reading: Mormino's historical study (left) and Douglas's book (1996 edition).
cultural history of the St. Louis neighborhood Dago Hill, or "The Hill," from which many of the American amateurs on the 1950 side hailed. (American baseball legend Yogi Berra comes from the same primarily Italian enclave.) As such, soccer in this case can help illuminate a vital aspect of the American immigrant experience, and we hope that the film explores avenues addressed in Douglas's book and in Gary Ross Mormino's Immigrants on the Hill: Italian-Americans in St. Louis, 1882–1982 (University of Missouri Press, 2002). The City of St. Louis website helps explain the demographic patterns:

A large influx of Italians came to St. Louis in the 1890s to work in clay mines in the Fairmount area. Factory expansion nationally increased demand for fire brick, including that made in St. Louis. Many of these Italians came to St. Louis via the Illinois coal fields, replacing German and African-American clay miners. By the turn of the century, they were living on what we now call "The Hill." The neighborhood grew most during the first two decades of [the twentieth] century.

St. Louis has taken pride in the production, flocking as potential extras to the on-location filming. Film work also occurred in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where the U.S. match against England took place on 29 June 1950. St. Louis had proven a strong growth area for soccer, even among native-born players, as noted by Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (Princeton, 2001). The area birthed the St. Louis Soccer League (1907–39) to join the alphabet soup of early American football associations. And according to Dave Litterer's "History of Soccer in St. Louis," St. Matthew's Parish in North St. Louis launched the first U.S. women's soccer league in 1951.

Six St. Louis players—Gino Pariani, Charlie Colombo, Frank Borghi, Bob Annis, Frank "Pee-Wee" Wallace and Bill Bertani—helped make up the 1950 team. Their pictures appear fuzzy and awkwardly cropped on the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame website. Indeed, their contributions have rarely come into focus. Only one U.S. sportswriter—Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, portrayed in the film by Patrick Stewart—attended the 1950 finals. Markovits and Hellerman write that "even such internationally minded papers of record as the New York Times mentioned this event only in a short story obscurely buried on the fourth page of its sports section" (p. 121).

Accusations also were leveled about the makeup of the U.S. team, of which three—Edward McIlvenny of Scotland, Joseph Maca of Belgium and Joseph Gaetjens of Haiti—were not U.S. citizens but "American resident aliens," a Joseph Eduard Gaetjenspermissible category under the looser FIFA strictures of the time. Gaetjens (left) is the most notorious of the three, having scored the winner against England—"a deliberate, and brilliant, diving header," according to Cris Freddi in Complete Book of the World Cup 2002. The son of a Belgian father and Haitian mother, Gaetjens returned to play football in Haiti but was believed to have been murdered in 1964 at the hands of the Tontons Macoutes ("bogeymen") of François "Papa Doc" Duvallier.

This historical interlude offers interesting context to ongoing developments in American soccer and the fascinating tug-of-war between desires to secure the sport's domestic stability at club level and to achieve glory internationally. Players and the U.S. Soccer Federation agreed on 21 January temporarily to end a labor dispute, enabling veteran U.S. internationals to join a training camp for upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

Yet the juggling act continues, primarily financially, as soccer authorities squirm over giving substantial pay increases to international players while still wishing to retain sizeable reserves for facilities development, all toward realizing a mission of making soccer "a preeminent sport in the United States."
The verdict is in, and The Game of Their Lives seems to be giving off the familiar whiff of mediocrity. Even Patrick Stewart does not escape criticism. The San Francisco Chronicle says that he "narrates the film with the same patronizing tone one might use to read 'Goodnight Moon' at bedtime to a 4-year-old." Part of the problem, according to Soccer America, is that a production budget originally slated for $40 million was whittled by two-thirds. Director David Anspaugh is almost apologetic about the result: "This is a sports film, it is a soccer movie, and I had to come to terms with that and make peace with that and be proud of a movie that the soccer community in America would accept and embrace." Yet one can't be sure the film has accomplished this objective. The Washington Post calls the movie "a glaring disservice to the men who played the game" and criticizes "the forced, head-scratching speechifying about soccer being 'democratic' and how it's the sport of the future in America." Uber-critic Roger Ebert gripes about the absence of smoking. "There's only . . . three cigars in the whole movie." So some critiques are more substantive than others. (24 April 2005)

We cannot be certain when "preeminence" will be achieved; in our minds, that day has already come. We would prefer more commitment toward world football and must question the governing body's priorities when the commissioner of Major League Soccer, Don Garber, also sits on the U.S. federation's executive committee. To Garber, qualifying for the World Cup finals "isn't any more important than the federation's other priorities. It's not just about qualifying, but the overall development of the sport" (Jack Bell, "Labor Feud Set Aside, for Now," New York Times, 25 January).

In our overactive imaginations we immediately associate what seems like haughtiness on U.S. soccer officials' part with the broader political climate: the seemingly tin American ear toward world opinion and toward the concept of global citizenship. Already this attitude of "fortress America" has resulted in the regretful relocation of the 2005 Homeless World Cup from New York. The International Network of Street Papers, the main sponsor, last month announced cancellation of the event, scheduled for Manhattan's Bryant Park, due to uncertainties over obtaining visas for homeless players abroad. The result is loss of a great educational opportunity and chance for cultural exchange.

Are we as citizens blithely accepting the attitudes of leadership in Washington, or are preferences for a privatized freedom ("doing what one wants and getting one's way") in the heartland—noted by sociologist Orlando Patterson in his commentary on Bush's inaugural ("The Speech Misheard Round the World," New York Times, 22 January)—leading to a growing isolation?

Well, as usual, we have strayed too far from football. But it is an interesting question to ponder whilst transported cinematically to the green fields of Belo Horizonte.

Update: See Alex Bellos's article on Hollywood's increasing fascination with football ("Hollywood Wakes Up to the Call of the World's Biggest Game," The Guardian, 1 March 2005). The Homeless World Cup has officially relocated to Edinburgh. Thirty-two national sides are expected to compete from 20–24 July. | back to top