Fans In The Dark: Talking To Greg Lalas About Soccer, Film, and Soccer Film Festival "Kicking and Screening"

Former MLS player and film festival co-curator Greg Lalas on soccer, movies, soccer movies, and what makes them all work.
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What, no Rollerball?

Image via Kicking and Screening.

Greg Lalas has been a part of soccer, and vice versa, for his entire life. A star college player, Lalas briefly played professionally in Luxembourg and the MLS before transitioning into a career as a soccer columnist (for Sports Illustrated, among other venues) and editor, first at Goal.com and currently as the editor in chief of MLSsoccer.com. This does not necessarily leave a lot of time for going to the movies, but Lalas has also helped curate Kicking and Screening, a soccer film festival, since 2009.

The festival has grown steadily since the inaugural event, holding satellite festivals in Washington D.C. and Houston, among other U.S. cities, as well as internationally, in London, Amsterdam and, earlier this year, in Kerala, India. (By way of disclosure: Kicking and Screening has also staffed up, with Classical staffer Noah Davis working for the festival in a communications role) The fourth annual Kicking and Screening Festival begins on June 27, and runs through June 30, in New York City; future festivals will follow in Portland, Oregon in mid-September and London again later that month. Lalas spoke to us via email about soccer, films, soccer films, and what makes all of them work, when they do.

We haven't seen all that many soccer films that made an impression on the culture in the United States—Bend It Like Beckham, sort of, and Bill Simmons (if seemingly no one else) is still pretty hung up on Victory—but the festival has done really well here in New York; the previous two sold out completely. What do you think people are looking for, and finding, in Kicking and Screening?

I'd argue that the reason soccer films have not made an impression in the US, for the most part, is that they simply aren't being seen. Like the game itself when it comes across the desk of many sports editors, these films slam into some familiar barriers when they are looking for distribution: ignorance and even disdain of the game, misunderstanding of the audience, and ignorance of the actual market. I mean, 25 million Americans watched the 2010 World Cup final: that's 10 million more than the entire population of one of the finalists, Holland. So there's obviously a market.

But more importantly, at least to us, is that we know the passion of many of those soccer fans. Because they have spent so many years in the wilderness they are more passionate and ardent devotees. In many ways, US soccer fans are like alternative rock fans before Nirvana hit the mainstream. We are in the underground and hungry for anything that legitimizes our choice, particularly a cultural event that can bring all the alternative folks together. Think Lollapalooza without Perry Farrell. I think K+S, in many ways, taps into a similar desire to commune with other soccer alternakids.

The festival's website makes a pretty good case for soccer and film as broadly simpatico experiences—the collaborative process in creating both and passive experience of giving oneself over to either as a viewer for 90 minutes, the ways in which each imply and express certain aspects of the human condition and suchlike. But I found it difficult to come up with a soccer film that really felt like it got into those similarities— Zidane certainly did, but that was the whole point of it. What do you think makes a good soccer film work—that is, what makes it both a good film, and a good soccer film?

A good soccer film works only when the soccer is a vehicle for other discussions. FC Barcelona Confidential, for example, is a brilliant film about risk-takers and dreamers, who just happen to be on the executive board of a major football club. Eine Andere Liga (In Another League) is about a cancer-stricken teenage girl who has a mastectomy; the soccer is just a conduit to her desire to feel normal. (It also has one of the most heart-wrenching sex scenes you'll ever see.) Soka Afrika, which won our Golden Whistle Jury Award in 2011, is about human trafficking and the all-too-human desperation that sees so many young African players go to Europe on a wing and a prayer. They could be Indian engineers coming to the States or Polish construction workers going to the UK or Turkish electricians going to Germany—they want a better life and they're willing to take massive risks and endure horrible conditions, if only to save face for their families.

The game is very hard to play and even harder to capture with any justice. So the game itself must be a backdrop, the cultural currency that the films uses to pay for the story, if you will.

Thing is, few actors can play the game, and few players can act. That's why documentaries end up being better than narrative features. It's also why Victory remains such a classic: The players, like Pele, Ardiles, Wark, Deyna, and so on, can really play the game and when they do in the film, it looks legitimate. Sly? Well, he holds his own in goal. And hell, maybe he's the reason, ultimately, that the US has created so many top-class goalkeepers. He certainly defines the reasons when he explains that we Americans spend our lives catching things. He's clever that way.

Soccer's universality is such a huge part of its identity—this is everyone's game, the world's game, and so on. It makes sense, given all that, that you've done the K&S thing all over the world, in Europe and Asia and here in the States. What have been the commonalities and differences in the reception you've received in different places?

Everywhere we go, the good stories resonate. In the US, there is such a hunger for any kind of soccer culture, particularly if it celebrates the US soccer culture. I think this is probably because we're starting to emerge from our Europhilism to an extent, where soccer is involved. We are beginning to recognize that the US has a soccer history and a soccer culture and that, although different than the European one, it's still worthwhile.

In Europe, fans really enjoy the films that go behind the scenes at clubs. Everyone aspires to be a soccer star in Europe. They identify with the club so much, and the club takes on this aura of Oz. Fans are dying to see what's behind the curtain: What does the locker room smell like? What do the executive eat when in the boardroom? Those little details really resonate in Europe. They also like to see a star torn down from the heavens a little more than Americans do. And the Indians? Well, they just love it all. They are seriously mad for football.

Just as each country has its own identity, soccer-wise, different cultures look at and make film differently—the difference between a spare, artistic documentary like Zidane and the sort of films that come out of the Far East or Bollywood (or Hollywood) is so intense and palpable. How do you try to reflect this in picking the films?

We take into account the location of the festival when choosing the films to some extent, but not all that much. Obviously, New York is the perfect place to give 1:1 Thierry Henry it's world premiere.

But it wouldn't have to be here. Because the game is so global, and TV has made it uniform the world over, these films can succeed anywhere. As for the filmmaking itself, it's similar to what I was saying earlier: Europeans like that behind-the-scenes stuff, and they do that in a lot of their films. They also like to go into their history. One particular story they love is the sentimental look at the glory days of a little club. The Last Proletarians of Football is a good example, retelling the story of IFK Goteborg's amazing run to the UEFA Cup title in 1982. Everyone, everywhere, loves a Cinderella story. And remembering the great ones from the past—especially today, when the game's giants and oligarchs have made it impossible for a little club to win or even compete—is a favorite narrative arc.

You've got a different experience of the game than most people—because you played in the MLS, and live in it now as a media dude—but everyone sort of knows what they like and don't, movie-wise. What soccer films really work for you, and why do you think they do?

There are two little films that remain my favorites: First is Mattias Low's The Referee, a short Swedish documentary about Marcus Hanson, the referee who missed the Henry handball against Ireland. The film does such a nice job of showing Hanson as a human being—divorced, a cold father—amid the anxiety of the missed call and his devastation at the prospect of not getting called up to the World Cup. You can't help but sympathize with this good man who fell into some unfortunate circumstances.

My other favorite is called a Brazilian short called Loucos de Futebol (Beyond Soccer), directed by Halder Gomes. It is a fun, intelligent, generous take on the big rivalry in Fortaleza, Brazil, between Ciera and Fortaleza. Gomes is a huge fan of the game and of his compatriots, and he shows all their insanity and silliness with such love, you can't help by laugh and cheer with them all, which ultimately, is what this game is all about—being with others.


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