3 stars


1st March 2006

As a Liverpool fan, I've had quite enough drama so far already this year, thank you. No matter how many lacklustre 0-0 performances I sit through, all I have to do is think back to That Night In Istanbul and it'll raise the hairs on the back of my neck. The football movie (or 'soccer', if you'd prefer to be wrong) genre isn't exactly speckled with too many shining examples; Escape to Victory is only memorable for its sheer lunacy (Pele and John Wark in the same team? Whatever!) and Sean Bean's When Saturday Comes was more Beazer Homes League than Premiership. Goal! (exclamation mark mandatory) promises to be a different affair, with full FIFA backing, a $100m budget and unprecedented access to Newcastle United Football Club. However, as Graham Souness has shown us recently, a big budget doesn't always make for a wholly interesting experience.

Strip away the football and you've seen this movie a million times. It's The Karate Kid with stepovers. It's 8 Mile with Alan Shearer. It's every rags to riches tale you've ever seen, with the glitz and glamour of the Premier League and all of its sponsors. Santiago Munez (newcomer Kuno Becker) is a young Mexican working in L.A. who dreams of one day playing professional football, if only his father would just believe in him. Cue Geordie ex-scout Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane) who catches glimpses of Munez's genius from the sidelines and arranges a trial at Newcastle United if he can escape the drudgery of his everyday life and make it to the Toon on time. After an emotional goodbye, Munez leaves the shitty weather and dangerous locals of Los Angeles and arrives in sunny and friendly Newcastle (or something), ready to fight for his place in the team and prove to himself and his father that his was a dream worth believing in.

Goal! has its ups and downs, but it's all as predictable as another Chelsea win. Sure, there are times when it might look like Munez has blown his chances, but you're never in any doubt that his fortune will change and the youngster will rise to the top. It's a tad unbelievable the amount of times an unknown footballer is given 'one last chance' by a manager who should really have more things to worry about (apparently, all you need to get a contract is a pushy agent), but then this is sheer boy's own fantasy - there won't be a lad in the cinema who hasn't one day dreamed of playing football at the highest level (or at Newcastle United) so it's very easy to get comfortable in the ridiculousness of it all.

It would have certainly been interesting to see how Goal! would have turned out had the lead role been given to original choice Gael Bern Garcia Bloke, because although Becker doesn't fare too badly as the wunderkid, it isn't exactly a breakout performance either. Alessandro Nivola is fantastic as the Beckham-like playboy Gavin Harris - not only does he make the most of all of the best lines, but manages to make his character likeable and yes, even believable as a footballer. Anna Friel plays the same role she plays in every movie - the sweet and homely love interest who serves no purpose in the movie other than to give the guys in the audience something to ogle. This is not necessarily a bad thing - Goal! is unashamedly a lads' movie, even the soundtrack features strictly hetero geezer-hugging tracks from the likes of Oasis and Kasabian.

While the $100m budget obviously didn't go on the actors' wage bills, it's been put to great use by nabbing all the required licences to make Goal's action scenes seem just as realistic as Match of the Day (and with no Mark Lawrenson to shout at). There are no games against Melchester Rovers and no Pro Evo-style humorously named players here - actual match footage is spliced seamlessly with that of the actors on the pitch, lending Goal! a much-needed sense of authenticity. There's very little need to suspend your disbelief throughout, and for an industry that's so mired in money, licences, TV deals and marketing, that's certainly an accomplishment in itself. Newcastle players like Shearer, Lee Bowyer, Kieron Dyer and... um, Jermaine Jenas all play a part, although you can't blame the movie for missing out on a few late transfers here and there (the sight of little Mickey Owen in a black and white shirt on the big screen would have turned Goal! into a personal tragedy for some of us).

If you know who Jeff Stelling is, think 4-5-1 is a bad idea and have an opinion on David James, then you'll probably already be on your way to see Goal!, and will no doubt get a huge, Roy Keane-sized two-footed kick out of it all. If you think football is a complete waste of time, there's not a whole not here for you to enjoy. But then... it's a football movie, so what would you expect? Goal! is big on entertainment and light on story, then, but sometimes, you just can't beat those real-life experiences for the big time thrills. Any Liverpool fan will tell you that.

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