Goal! The Dream Begins

I find it hard to get excited about a sports movie when it seems like every year Disney rolls out some formulaic, based-on-a-true-story, feel-good athletic flick. If those feelings of avoidance are beginning to well up within you at the thought watching of yet another sports story, please, do yourself a favor and suppress them. This is a movie that strays from the formula, and scores big.

Goal! The Dream Begins doesn’t need a real life story to be meaningful. This fictional tale makes its own magic. Santiago Munez’ father smuggled his family into the United States when Santiago was just a boy. Like so many illegal immigrants they live under the radar, doing what labor they can, trying to make a better life. In his precious free hours, Santiago plays soccer. He loves it and is incredibly talented. “Where did he learn to play like that?” asks one onlooker. “God taught him,” replies his coach. Regardless of Santiago’s passion or ability, his father believes it to be nothing but a waste of time. It’s a very familiar setup; seems like all sports stories, truth or fiction, start out pretty much the same way. But this is where the movie leaves the trodden path and finds its own way of creating a story worth watching.

During one of Santiago’s weekend matches he’s spotted by an ex-professional soccer scout from Europe who happens to be in the States visiting his daughter. Dazzled by what he sees on the field, he agrees to find a way to get Santiago a trial with a professional soccer team if the boy can find a way to get to Newcastle, England. Just scraping together enough money to buy the plane ticket seems impossible, but it’s nothing compared to the challenges he faces with his father and his own self doubt.

A lot of sports films focus on the underdog, the unexpected heroes who overcome unbelievable odds to achieve some glorious victory. All of that gets straightened out in the film’s first half, leaving the remainder to begin exploring what happens when the little guy becomes the top dog. It’s a nice switch to watch a story where the athlete isn’t constantly burdened with an unfair disadvantage or some horrible social injustice.

Once Santiago secures his place on the soccer team he faces a whole new series of difficulties, ones that aren’t often explored in the underdog type movies. He doesn’t want to win a single championship or break some record. The dream is to play soccer among the best in the world and enjoy his passion for the sport at the greatest level. It’s an ongoing effort to succeed professionally and remain true to his roots in the face of demoralizing celebrity status.

Into the midst of all that drama comes the sport itself. Fast paced and furious matches keep the adrenaline moving and serve as a reminder of just how brutal and demanding the sport can be. In Europe, soccer gets the same royal treatment Americans give to sports like basketball and baseball. The glitz and excitement of England’s favorite pasttime comes across the screen in all its high gloss glory. As a finishing touch, the film is peppered with soccer celebrity cameos. David Beckham, Zinédine Zidane, Alan Shearer and a whole host of other famous players make appearances throughout.

Americans are slow to embrace anything that we didn’t popularize. It’s why we’re still the only country not using the metric system. We’re also among the last of the nations to truly embrace soccer, or football as it’s known everywhere else in the world. For most of us Yanks it’s a sport the kids play before they get to high school. That attitude is probably a big reason why Goal! is just now making it to American theaters (released last year around the world it’s been a hit in just about every other major market). It’s probably also the reason why a lot of Americans will miss out on a wonderful cinema experience. This isn’t just a great soccer movie; it’s a great movie, period.

The first part of a trilogy (hence the title, the dream begins) the movie sets the stage for a much larger story. The other two films are in various stages of production and are set for releases this year and next. This first film will be a tough act to follow, but if the other movies remain as enjoyable and original, they could set a new standard in sports story filmmaking. Here’s hoping they keep their eye on the ball.