The Miracle Match (The Game of Their Lives)


The Miracle Match

Zachery Bryan and Wes Bentley are chagrinned to discover that nobody wants to see a movie about soccer.

(2005) True Life Sports (IFC) Gerard Butler, Wes Bentley, Patrick Stewart, John Rhys-Davies, Jay Rodan, Costas Mandylor, Louis Mandylor, Zachery Bryan, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Gavin Rossdale, Terry Kinney, Craig Hawksley, Nelson Vargas, Richard Jenik. Directed by David Anspaugh

The most popular sport in the world is what we call soccer and every other civilized nation on the globe calls football. For some reason, it just doesn’t resonate with the American psyche and for the most part, the popularity of soccer in this country has resided in the immigrant communities, particularly European and Latin American immigrants who grew up with the game in their blood.

In 1950, soccer barely registered at all to the American public but in St. Louis – particularly in the Italian enclave known as “The Hill” – it was more than a passion, it was a pastime. There were many who felt that the best soccer in the nation was being played there, especially to St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Dent McSkimming (Kinney) who covered the soccer beat for the paper. When the U.S. wangled their way into the World Cup (back then, it didn’t have the long and involved qualifying tournament), most Americans reacted with a “what’s that?” – if they reacted at all. However, McSkimming and some of the St. Louis soccer players were excited when Walter Geisling (Hawksley), one of the great promoters of soccer in this country during that era, came to town to announce try-outs for America’s first World Cup team. 

Because it had been pulled together at the last minute, the team would have little time to develop. Laconic coach Bill Jeffrey (Rhys-Davies) has two completely separate schools of play to choose from; the extremely disciplined style of the East Coast, led by Walter Bahr (Bentley) and the freewheeling style of the St. Louis Italian clubs, whose best player is goalie Frank Borghi (Butler). Somehow, the players had to figure out a way to blend their styles into something new, something stronger if they had a chance of competing. Winning a game? Not possible. They would be going up against national teams that had lived together and played together for months, with the best players in the world playing on them. When they went to Brazil, the team was hoping merely not to embarrass themselves.

As luck would have it, they were scheduled to play against the English team, the clear favorites to win the cup and a team led by the greatest player of the time, Stanley Mortensen (Rossdale). They would have to play the game of their lives to pull off the greatest upset in World Cup history, but somehow, you know what the outcome will be.

This movie was released initially as The Game of Their Lives  but when Disney released this on home video, they changed the title to The Miracle Match, possibly to distance themselves from the disastrous theatrical box office numbers. American soccer continues to be in its adolescent stages, but the American sports movie certainly has a bit more maturity to it. Ultimate underdog movies like this have been done before, in Miracle and Hoosiers (which Anspaugh also directed). One of the problems I have with a sports movie like this is that you have to get invested in the players and their off-field dramas in order to gain that rooting interest. Sadly, that never happens here. These are a bunch of cardboard cutout character types that are so blandly played that you can barely tell one from the other. Butler and Bentley gamely try their best, but they are ultimately submarined by a sub-par script. For example, the man who coaches the team, Bill Jeffrey, comes off as someone who essentially just shows up at the games. He has no insight into the game that we’re privvy to, and never seems to make any decisions regarding the team – the players do that. 

Just as bad, the soccer sequences are uniformly bad. It’s obvious the actors can’t play the game very well, and the Bend It Like Beckham sequences – which are performed by adolescent girls – come off far more realistically. While Anspaugh captures the era nicely, in the end, this is an emotionless movie that does not do well by a group of men who deserve better for one of the crowning achievements in all of sports history.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures a little known moment in U.S. Soccer history. Bentley and Butler do fine jobs in their roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lack of character depth and the feeling of “Haven’t we seen this before” pervades the entire film. Soccer sequences are atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and thematic issues.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the scene of Gino and Janet’s wedding reception, the guests are played by members of the St. Louis contingent of the team, their children and grandchildren.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $388,998 on a $20m production budget; the film was a major flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Unknown

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