It’s hard to feel sorry for ‘Anelka: Misunderstood’ (2020)

Anelka: Misunderstood (2020)
aka Anelka: L'incompris

Celebrity documentaries and series have been streaming during the pandemic, flooding our devices and probably our psyches too. The problem is that, there are only so many best-in-the-world sport celebrities. After you get through the stories of what made Ronaldo or Messi great, you fall to the coulda-wouldas, the guys who “coulda been a contender” — if only, if only.

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Revisit Barça under Pep in ’Take the Ball Pass the Ball’ (2018)

Take the Ball Pass the Ball (2018)

The Year of the Pandemic has been wickedly bloodthirsty as it feasted on the faltering FC Barcelona. Internal scandals led to Barcelona’s crunching 2-8 exit in the 2019-2020 Champions League quarter-finals, the messy Messi situation, and the attempt of Barça’s fans to expel the board. Even if you’re not a Barça fan, it’s hard to watch such an admired club implode so quickly.

In these depressing times, it’s uplifting to remember a period just a decade ago when Barcelona was Camelot: the greatest and good King Pep and his round table of Knights, led by Sir Messilot, who were all about the Football and the Team.

And that’s why it’s probably not coincidental that Take the Ball Pass the Ball just became available on Netflix. As the producers recently tweeted, “It’s about Barça… when they were good.”

https://twitter.com/zoomsportint/status/1302539400916631552?s=20

The coverage

Take the Ball Pass the Ball is pretty long at 1 hour 49 minutes; it appears to be a first feature by Director Duncan McMath and is based on the 2012 book by his friend and football journalist, Graham Hunter. Hunter had written gloriously about Barça’s 2008-2012 reign under Pep Guardiola, and McMath visualized it as a film with additional player participation.

Players interviewed for the film
Players interviewed for the film

During an interview with DSpot, the creators said they interviewed 36 people. By the time they filmed, 5 years had passed. Media attention had waned, and players shared stories that knit together the shroud of greatness that surrounds Guardiola. 

The filmmakers break 2008-2012 into 6 segments (time markers are approximate):

  1. Wembley 2011 (2:50)
    • The Champions League Final versus ManU at Wembley on May-28-2011
    • Emblematic as the the peak of the greatest team ever
  2. The Road to Wembley (9:02)
    • Starts with Barça’s 2010 Champions League semi-final elimination by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan (the eventual champions)
    • Mourinho takes over Real Madrid and spars with Pep, his former teammate, through the media
    • Eric Abidal’s role in the Final in the face of recovery from liver cancer that was diagnosed in Mar-2011
  3. The Barcelona Way (27:25)
    • The revival and reinforcement of tiki taka from Johan Cruyff to Frank Rijkaard to Pep Guardiola
    • The importance of La Masia, Barça’s youth academy
    • Highlights the difficulty of learning Barça’s style when a new player joins from the outside
  4. The Making of Messi (45:48)
    • How Messi was discovered and why he is so great
    • How it is near-impossible to compile a list of his greatest goals because there are so many
  5. The Local Hero – Pep Guardiola (1:00:50)
    • Pep’s playing career
    • How Cruyff spotted Pep early
    • Why Cruyff recommended Pep to succeed Rijkaard instead of Mourinho
  6. Life after Pep (1:33:49)
    • Pep burns out but maybe Xavi will eventually inherit the Barça mantle

What made Pep and Barça so great?

Through repeated statements in interviews, the film builds a case about what made that particular Barcelona team so great. It’s more than just having Messi, one of the all-time greats. Pep built the team around Messi, but he also convinces players that if they do what he tells them to do, it will work and they will win. While a control freak on player diet and activities, he was also at that time a player’s manager because he had only retired from playing a few years earlier and understood what that generation of players needed.

Out of favor Samuel Eto’o snidely remarks that the players were so good, they didn’t need a manager. But to see professional players watch themselves, hundreds of times over, scoring a favorite goal, you recognize that being the best in the world takes a different mindset. The manager who can coordinate 20+ players to be in that mindset at the same time — has to be a magician.

In conclusion

The film is an excellent way to educate yourself on the Barcelona style of play. We can only hope it will still be there after the current board has wreaked its havoc.

There is of course a ton of soccer in this film. I had an issue with the first half-hour, where the game footage was a mash of split-second frame clips, too fast and short to see what was happening, and cued to convey emotion. I almost stopped watching because it felt like a commercial. And Mourinho as the bad guy is a meme today. But once past that point, the coverage was enjoyable and informative.

For a more historical documentary on Barcelona, check out Barça Dreams.

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8

Resources:

A treasure for old Leeds fans – ‘Do You Want to Win?’ (2017)

I enjoyed Lee Hicken’s Take Us Home: Leeds United series so much, I was compelled to watch his earlier documentary on Leeds. Both are on Amazon Prime. Do You Want to Win covers Leeds’ last successful seasons in the early 1990s, when they won promotion to the top division and 2 years later won that division in the last season before it became the EPL.

The film compresses 3 seasons of the Wilkinson period at Leeds United FC, so that I actually thought that the team had gone from the bottom of Division 2 to winning Division 1 in 2 consecutive seasons, but it took Manager Howard Wilkinson 3.5 seasons.

Changing the culture in the locker room

The film emphasizes how Managing Director Bill Fotherby hired Wilkinson and rebuilt the team. In the 1988-1989 season, Leeds were at the bottom of Division 2, and towards the end of the season, Howard Wilkinson was brought in as Manager. For the 1989-1990 season, he convinced Gordon Strachan to come to Leeds from ManU, where coincidentally, Alex Ferguson had just told the 31 year old Strachan that he had played his last game for the club.

Much of the film is devoted to the overhauling of the roster. It’s fascinating to listen to Wilkinson and Fotherby explain the thinking behind the signings.

Vinnie Jones was recruited along with his reputation as “a household name you couldn’t say at the dinner table” because Wilkinson recognized the hard man’s great leadership qualities. It also created excitement and buzz among the fans and media “because you don’t buy Vinnie Jones at random”. Vinnie cheerfully describes himself as the psycho big brother to David Batts.

Wilkinson also instituted discipline such as weekly weigh-ins. Leeds became recognized as “long ball merchants”, which they could do because they were fitter than everyone else. Mediocrity was no longer acceptable.

Other roster changes occurred after promotion. Wilkinson strengthened his team with bigger names and talks about his decision to replace Vinnie Jones with Gary McAllister. Mid-season in their Division 1 championship run, Lee Chapman broke his wrist, so Wilkinson brought in Eric Cantona, “Le Brat”, and the Vinnie Jones of France. Cantona’s first goal for Leeds is included in the film and is phenomenal (after 9 goals, Cantona joined ManU).

The coaching perspective

Since both Wilkinson and Gordon Strachan have long management careers, it is interesting to hear their views on what they see in players. Sometimes managers picked those who “weren’t spectacular football players but were wonderful professionals”.

A couple of good coaching quotes:

“Sometimes when you look at a game and a team, you have to say to yourself: Has he got better players than me? Has he got a better team than me? Is he a better manager than me? What can I do that will ensure that we can beat them?”

Howard Wilkinson

“Analysts say that 35-50% of what happens in a game can be chance. Good managers try and make sure that they’re at the 35% end and not so good managers leave it to the fate of the gods and it’s the 50% end. But then there are just games where you just know just by everything you might try and do etc that things are happening out there that are beyond your control.”

Howard Wilkinson

Changing the culture of the fans

One unfortunate side-effect of winning promotion at an away game was that Leeds fans trashed the town of AFC Bournemouth. The media raked the club as racist hooligans, and the FA threatened games without fans as well as being booted from the FA. The film covers the club’s efforts to change its image from having “the worst behaved fans in the country”, but I’m actually not sure how re-educating the fans worked out…

In Conclusion

I’ve included what I felt were some of the best bits of the film. It’s better than most talking-head documentaries but if you are not a Leeds fan, it might be difficult to finish watching the film – it took me several tries. I’m also not so sure how much production studio The City Talking really wants to change Leeds’ image, when they use Vinnie Jones’ face (although unrecognizable) in the Amazon movie thumbnail. 🙂

Resources

‘Take Us Home: Leeds United’ (2019) leaves you longing for Season 2

Take Us Home: Leeds United (2019)

As we all struggle on with the pandemic, one of the things we miss most is sporting events — the hot dogs, the beer, the chance to be with like-minded souls and scream in unison at a goal or a bad foul. For some, streaming sports documentary series at home is a modest substitute. Writer-Director Lee Hicken’s series Take Us Home: Leeds United does more than substitute for sports; it creates a sporting legend.

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‘Still Defending’ (2020) after a life-threatening illness

Still Defending (2019)
Still Defending: Drew Beckie’s Road to Recovery (2019)

We never know what can take us down: accidents, cancer, our own bad habits. Today, coronavirus is foremost in our minds. But in 2017, Canadian soccer player Drew Beckie contracted myocarditis, an infection in his heart. The standard medical advice was absolute rest for 6-8 months and the warning that he might never play again. 

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‘The Rhino Cup’ (2019) – can football reduce poaching?

The Rhino Cup (2019)

When anti-poachers asked a village how to help, the answer was a football league.

As a child, Matt Bracken developed a love for Africa’s wildlife, which lead to his becoming a safari travel specialist. From there, he became an anti-poaching ranger for ProTrack in South Africa. Protrack has 300 rangers in Mozambique who fight rhinoceros poachers.

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‘Muerte o Gloria: The Rise of the American Soccer Fan’ (2015)

Muerte o Gloria: The Rise of the American Soccer Fan (2015)

As a soccer fan who rarely watches any other sport these days, I tend to forget that basketball, baseball and pointy football don’t have fans like soccer football does. Following the European and Latin American traditions, soccer is the only pro sport in the USA where, pre-pandemic, supporters groups show up with songs, drums, banners, flags, TIFOs and a s**tload of enthusiasm.

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Sunderland ’Til I Die (2018) takes your eye off the truth

Sunderland 'Til I Die (2018-2019)

Football clubs used to publish just a single documentary film about themselves every so often, but now they’ve migrated to massive streaming series. Usually I avoid football club and player movies because I know they are going to amount to a very long marketing video. I made an exception for the Netflix series Sunderland ’Til I Die. And here’s why.

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‘Alive & Kicking: The Soccer Grannies of South Africa’ (2016)

Alive & Kicking: The Soccer Grannies of South Africa (2016)

In this charming documentary, community organizer and radio show presenter Beka Ntsanwisi explains how and why she started Vakhegula Vakhegula, a soccer club for grannies in the region of Limpopo, South Africa. Suffering from chronic diseases or traumas, these Vakhegula (grannies, also called gogos) found football made them healthier and lifted their focus away from pain.

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‘Soccertown USA’ (2018) the Jersey Boys of soccer

Soccertown USA (2018)

Soccertown USA is a treasure of painstaking research conducted by Writers Tom McCabe and Kirk Rudell. For years, I had wondered why so many US National Team players and referees came from New Jersey. This documentary explains how the Town of Kearny, a suburb of Newark, NJ, was a working class neighborhood of immigrants who brought their love of the game to their new country. The town became an oasis of excellence that developed American champions.

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‘Footeuses’ (2020) add women and football to your lexicon

In France, Footeuses is what female footballers call themselves, the feminine form of Footballeur. Until recently, to be a female footballer was largely an oxymoron: to be female and a football player was not accepted. This changed with the Womens World Cup 2019 in France and the hope that the hosting country’s women would repeat the French mens’ success at WC 2018. 

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‘Streetball’ (2010) best Homeless World Cup soccer movie

Streetball (2010)

Streetball is not just another homeless world cup film, it is the best of its genre. Despite being 10 years old, this documentary is fresh, vibrant, and still relevant in its reflection of the world today. Streetball also stands out as one of the few homeless world cup (HWC) films where the soccer is as engaging as the stories of the people.

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