Review: Becoming Zlatan (2015)

Becoming Zlatan (2015)

I don’t normally review biographical documentaries, because they tend to be marketing vehicles more than, well, documentaries. Becoming Zlatan (Den unge Zlatan) is an exception and worth your time if you are a fan of Zlatan Ibrahimović.

What makes Becoming Zlatan so intriguing is that it only covers the first 5 years and 3 clubs of his football career. Filmmakers and brothers Magnus and Fredrik Gertten had created a 1998 documentary about Malmö FF and its fans. They immediately saw that Zlatan was a unique character but of course had no idea how he would turn out.

With bountiful club access, they recorded footage and interviews while Zlatan was still in high school and playing on Malmö’s first team. Their perspicacity and luck resulted in a treasure trove of film as they followed him, zits and all, from Malmö to Ajax and then a bit at Juventus.

From the early footage, it is apparent that Zlatan today is not much different from the 17 year old Zlatan. The filmmakers also interview players (both friends and competitors) from those early years, who also attest to the constancy of Zlatan’s character. His personality and confidence were there from the beginning, and it is a bit of a surprise to see that the bigger-than-life superstar we know is quite a loner.

Zlatan hiding behind his jacket at Ajax

One of the interesting shots is when Zlatan is required to socialize with his teammates and pretty much hides behind his jacket. His preference is to stay in his apartment and play video games. Well, maybe that is true for many young men.

Another aspect of Zlatan is that the thug in him still seeps out on the field occasionally. The film captures two of the early controversies that lead him to an early departure from Ajax. But if you read his wikipedia page, you realize that ugly red cards and early departures from a club are Zlatan’s life pattern. However, under the management of agent Mino Raiola, the superstar’s bad behavior does not seem to have affected his income, as he has been one of the highest paid footballers in the world.

So this is a fascinating film, and watching Zlatan play is always worth the price of a ticket.

Zlatan only recently caught my attention after joining the LA Galaxy. Upon signing, he announced that LA now had a God. After Le Bron James signed with the LA Lakers, Zlatan tweeted that Los Angeles now had a God and a King.

Zlatan has brought a lot of attention to MLS, not just for his interviews and tweets off the pitch, but also for his performance on the field. The Galaxy this season has a woeful defense, but it appears the 36 year old Zlatan has resolved to score more goals than his defense gives up. It makes for some pretty outrageous games.

In Jun-2018, Zlatan and the Galaxy came to Stanford Stadium to play the San Jose Earthquakes in the annual El Classico. Relatively speaking, the Zlat looked like a U14 player among U11 boys. In the first minute of play, he was about 10 yards outside the box but marked by Kevin Partida, a slight 5’6” left back. Zlatan kicked the ball into the goal with so much force and pace, that all the Quakes fans around me laughed in a mix of awe and embarrassment.

However, based on Zlatan’s life patterns, I doubt he will be at the Galaxy past the 2019 season. If he stays in LA, it will be for a career change. I predict he will be the next Vinnie Jones.

So we can enjoy Zlatan play live now in MLS, and watch this film to see how he began. But becoming Zlatan? Nah, this film shows that he was always Zlatan.

In Swedish and English with English subtitles

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8


  • Released: 2015-11-22 (IDFA Festival in the Netherlands)

Review: Shui Hu the Soccer Heroes (2006)

Shui Hu The Soccer Heroes poster

Talk about strange. I found Shui Hu, The Soccer Heroes ( 水浒足球 ), an anime Chinese DVD, in my county library system. The animation is quite crude and similar to Captain Tsubasa, so that I thought this film must be from the early 1980s. Instead, this feature length cartoon from Hong Kong was produced in 2006.

To start the absurdity, this soccer story takes place during the Sung Dynasty (around 960 to 1279). The Emperor loves soccer, and whoever wins the National Championship gets to become the Royal Team for 4 years. Accordingly, the games are held in a modern soccer stadium, and the players wear various kinds of ancient or mythical uniforms. The animators rip off many of the football moves from Shaolin Soccer, with players having stone-breaking, wall-crumbling, water-defying, tornado-generating, goal post-crunching kicks and yin yang goalkeeper saves.

The evil Minister Gao Kau saves the Emperor’s kingdom by winning a challenge from a Korean dignitary. The Koreans have brought an iron soccerball instead of their country’s tribute. If none of the Emperor’s men can kick this heavy ball like the Korean player can, China must pay tribute to Korea instead. However, Gao Kau defeats them and wins the Emperor’s favor. As a reward, he is given the wealth and position of running the Royal Team.

Later, the Liang Shen rebels make an attempt on the Emperor’s life. Gao Kau suggests that the National Championship be used as a lure for the rebels. Encourage the Liang Shen to form a team, and Gao Kau can capture and execute all the rebels on the soccer pitch.

Meanwhile, Brother Sung Kong runs team Shui Hu. Provoked by Gao Kau over a loss, he bets his leg against Gao’s leg that Shui Hu will defeat the Royal Team in the Finals. I don’t understand why this is the second Hong Kong football film I’ve seen where men bet their legs over a match (see Boh Ngau). Maybe such stakes are supposed to reflect what big gamblers Chinese are, but it is repulsive nonetheless.

Anyhow, now Sung really needs to win, and he knows his present team has little quality. So he tries to recruit his old teammates to play. These are the ones with the mystical Shaolin Soccer-like powers. However, they are not Robin Hood-style bandits anymore. They all run successful businesses. But mysteriously, a bunch of ninjas burn the businesses to the ground.

So they return to the soccer pitch. That’s pretty much all you need to know. The rest of the movie proceeds the way you would expect, including the losing leg.

There are a few major inconsistencies in the story, such as who the ninjas are and why they are attacking people. The emphasis on the Liang Shen rebels sort of evaporated too.

Since the animation is so poor, you can’t enjoy the soccer.

It looks like there might be a sequel, but this is such an inexplicably bizarre film, why bother even seeking out Volume 2? It’s probably best to watch this film while you are stoned on some ancient Asian medicinal. I can’t think of any other reason to watch it, except to marvel at the oddities that companies produce in a World Cup year.

Shui Hu, the name of the team, is lifted from a famous Chinese myth, but I don’t think there is any real similarity between this plot and that of the Water Margin tale. However, the film is AKA “Water Margin Football”.

I would keep children away from this film.

In Cantonese or Mandarin with English subtitles

5 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 5


Released: 2006-06-10 (China)

Not in IMDB, no Trailer, no website

Director: 楊逸德 Takkie Yeung aka Yang Yide

Stars: None

Review: Futbolistas 4 Life (2018)

Futbolistas 4 Life (2018) You might summarize Futbolistas 4 Life as an inspirational example of resilience. But you’d be selling it short. You would miss the fact that bringing this engaging short documentary to theaters required the right stuff in every essence of its being. The story about immigrant and undocumented students in Oakland, who forge a life through soccer, stirs empathy and action. But the journeys and circumstances behind this film should also be appreciated.

The Resilience of the Players

April Rojas, the key player in the film, at first survives and then thrives through her 5 years of soccer. Her parents are undocumented, and while she and her sister used to be considered “anchor” children, in Trump’s regime, ICE could break up the family at any time. This fear, along with a fear of her father, causes panic attacks. Amazingly, the film follows Mr. Rojas as he attends a parenting skills class. Their relationship improves, and as April reaches graduation, she becomes a skilled Futbolista. April writes in her college application essay:

“When I first decided to play soccer, I was a fresh pair of soccer cleats. …But like new cleats, I was fresh out of the box. Stiff and inexperienced. … Life can’t always be a new pair of cleats, pretty and spotless. What really makes a pair of cleats beautiful is what they have persisted through, and I am those pair of cleats. You cannot score a goal if you are afraid to get your cleats dirty.”

The Resilience of the Community School

Life Academy High School is a public high school of 250 students, in Oakland, California, a city with a USA Top 20 murder rate. At the beginning of the film, four young people in the school’s community have been killed by street violence, and one has been taken by ICE. Like the city, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has also been under duress and in turmoil for decades.

Although it is not covered in the film, for Life Academy to continue is another story of resilience. I wondered how a public high school could be so small and yet not be a charter school. It turned out that School Superintendent Tony Smith came to OUSD in 2009 with a mission to create “full service” community schools that provided social services as well as education. He resigned in 2013. It appears that Life Academy is still active, but it is hard to tell because its website has not been updated since 2014, and school review websites have not updated Life Academy’s performance scores for since 2015-2016.

The Resilience of the Coach

Coach Dania Cabello may be the students’ key driving force of resilience. Her work as a fitness trainer funds her ability to volunteer with the community. She founded the “Futbolistas 4 Life” after school program along with a few students at Life Academy (hence the dual meaning of “4 Life” in the program’s name). Cabello is a former UC Berkeley and pro player who grew up in Oakland herself. She understands refugee issues because in 1976, her family fled from the Pinochet military regime in Chile.

In the beginning of the film in 2012, Coach Dania applies for and receives a $100,000 grant from the USSoccer Foundation to build a field on the Life Academy campus. The field is completed in 2014. Coach Dania, now at St Mary’s College in nearby Moraga, continues to work on themes of sports as a place to play in joyful resistance, where one can exercise and express freedom of movement. The Equalizer posted a recent article, where she filled in more of the aftermath of her time at Life Academy.

Sadly, the interview indicates that the turf field may not have fulfilled its community objectives. Soccer fields and places to play are so scarce in the Bay Area, that I knew access to any public field would be difficult to limit. We have this problem everywhere. So it was no surprise to me to read that in the evenings, the field is mostly rented out by pay-to-play soccer organizations from outside the local Fruitdale neighborhood. On my side of the Bay, this can be hundreds of dollars for each field session. The main difference between public and private facilities is that it is pretty much impossible for public facilities to deny rental to anyone who can pay.

The Resilience of the Director

As another example of resilience, Director Jun Stinson spent 6 years putting the film together. I’ve reviewed other documentaries where 2 to 4 years of incubation and struggle are typical (In the GameMen in the Arena). The biggest problem with taking longer to finish a documentary is its timeliness; not only does a market window close, but the subject changes, or new facts emerge.

In Stinson’s case, the situation for undocumented people became far worse, which made her themes of migrants even more relevant. But the apparent state of the high school declined. The students did not continue to thrive. The Futbolistas 4 Life program appears to have terminated after Coach Dania left. So to keep the film inspirational, Stinson has to ignore some negative outcomes. If she wants her film to make its market window, get out there, and be successful as a #Resist viewpoint, she has no choice. But for research nerds like me, it is a little disappointing when the truth is discovered.

So my advice is, watch this film, because DACA needs to survive, and the USA needs to find a better way to handle illegal immigration. But only engage yourself with its emotional impact. Don’t do any research about this film and don’t read my review.  😊

Although while researching, I came across an earlier 2011 soccer documentary by Jun Stinson, called The 90th Minute, which details the struggles of the former Women’s Professional Soccer league (I was a season ticket holder for both the WUSA and the WPS leagues). I’ve added this 20-minute documentary to my To Watch list.

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8

39 minutes long
In English and Spanish with English subtitles

Released: 2018-03-20 (San Diego)
Director: Jun Stinson 
Stars: April Rojas
Watch the Trailer 

Review: The Workers Cup (2017)

The Workers Cup (2017)Now that WC 2018 has finished in Russia (Congratulations to Les Bleus!), the eyes of the world turn to WC 2022 in Qatar. But as happened with Russia, the eyes of football fans are blind to the exploitation and corruption that FIFA has facilitated for these two tournaments. The Workers Cup might open your eyes a little, but to me, Adam Sobel’s film normalizes the conditions in Qatar. Continue reading “Review: The Workers Cup (2017)”

Review: Centre Forward (1978)

Centre Forward (1978)After the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) qualified for WC 2010, Koryo Studio re-mastered and re-released Centre Forward (중앙공격수) on DVD. It has been shown in several film festivals, including the 2011 edition of the Berlin 11mm International Film Festival.

With its black and white production values and moralistic lessons, this 1978 cinematic propaganda from North Korea reminds me of the 1950s TV series Rin Tin Tin and its like. Continue reading “Review: Centre Forward (1978)”

En el Séptimo Día (2017)

En el Séptimo Día (2017)En el Séptimo Día is more of an art film with a message from Director Jim McKay. It originated with a script that he drafted in 2001. The story is an intimate portrait of Mexican immigrant life, pulled from his present neighborhood in Brooklyn as well as his experience years ago, when he worked in a Noe Valley restaurant in San Francisco and watched movies at the Roxie Theater. Continue reading “En el Séptimo Día (2017)”