Despite it famously ending - or thereabouts - with Arsenal's win against Liverpool at Anfield on the night of 26 May 1989, the best moment in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, possibly his best piece of writing ever, is his telling of the story of Gus Caesar. A member of the Arsenal teams of the 1985-88 seasons, Caesar was part of a back four that kept a clean sheet at Old Trafford and was undoubtedly talented but, for whatever reason, failed to meet his potential. As Hornby pointed out - and it's this that's stuck in my mind since first reading his book - Caesar must have been a superb player and one with a rare talent.
Quoting Hornby, "At school he must have been much, much better than his peers so he gets picked for the school team and then...South London Boys...he's still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come and watch and he's offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford...but with the mighty Arsenal." As Hornby points out, Gus makes it through to the reserves even then - most young boys who join a team as an apprentice still don't get anywhere - and soon he's in the reserves, then the first team and, not before long, he gets a call from the England coach and he's in the U-21 squad. But, against Tottenham, Caesar looks lost and in the Littlewoods Cup Final at Wembley in April '88, he miskicks the ball, falls over and allows Danny Wilson to score the equaliser. Luton go on to win the cup and Hornby concludes the tale of Gus Caesar with a, "To get where he did, [he] clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation - the rest of us can only dream about having his kind of skill - and it still wasn't quite enough."
Yes, the story of Gus Caesar is one of failure but so too is football. Despite the recent success of Chelsea or of Arsenal and Manchester United in earlier seasons, the life of football fan is one of failure. Out of all the teams in the premiership, only one will win the Championship and only two teams out of all those in the various leagues will win the FA Cup and the League Cup. Go further afield and only one team out of the whole of Europe will win the Champion's League and there exists only the very slimmest of chances of ever being part of a World Cup winning team. Even as a fan, I lived for seventeen years before seeing Arsenal won the league - they won it too early in 1971 for me - leaving seventeen years of disappointment, of despair and of fruitless support.
Understandably, there aren't many sports films that deal with defeat - Raging Bull and Rocky are notable exceptions - but three have been collected here as Futebol, a short series of films produced in the late-nineties in Brazil, the home of flamboyant football and of international players of vast wealth but also of rampant street crime and rampant poverty. Each of the three films deals with this contrast, principally by taking one, two or three examples and studying their life in football and in a society where, in an adaptation of Bill Shankly's famous phrase, it's more important than life or death. What links the three films is that sense of failure, made explicit by the footballers being drawn into a game that is often much too big for them, which draws fans for whom winning is all that matters as well as a cast of coaches, scouts and agents prepared to shatter the lives of young kids in pursuit of success and a fear for their own career.
The first film is clearest in this, showing how three young boys pursue their dream of playing for Flamengo, the home team of Rio de Janeiro and the biggest in Brazil. Fabrício, Jeosmar and Edmilson are not from well-off homes - Fabrício's father is a mechanic and earns $350/month while Edmilson, as the film ends, has become a father - but each of them think nothing of sacrificing all that they have, which isn't very much, to follow their dream. From humble beginnings playing football on the backstreets of the favelas in which they've grown up, the three boys sign up for a tryout but attain different levels of success, one making it as an apprentice, the others not. But in spite of appearing to have made it, fate has other plans and the film reveals the tortuous route that must be taken to reach even the first step to success.
This is followed by a study of two players, Iranildo and Lúcio, both of whom are recent recruits to Flamengo and who, as the film opens, are safely in the first team. From wildly different backgrounds - Iranildo is a slight child of the Rio slums while Lúcio is a country boy from the edge of the Amazonian rainforest - the two players, though it may not be of their choosing, bond but do so under pressure. The fanatical supporters of Flamengo afford the players no quarter in pursuit of success and although both players enjoy what their fame has to offer, they are not prepared for the vocal disappointment of fans as Flamengo's season stumbles. Out of the cup and losing what ought to be easy games, Iranildo and Lúcio find no comfort with their teammates, nor friends and, being so far from home, their families. Alone and without friends, the two try to do the best for Flamengo whilst also keeping their place in the first team.
Finally, Futebol follows a week in the life of Paulo Cesar Lima, also known as Caju. A star of Flamengo and of the Brazilian national team in the seventies, Lima was a flamboyant player on and off the field. Driving a Lamborghini and always dressed in the latest fashions - a highlighted afro and ludicrously-coloured bellbottoms were his signature styles - Caju was outrageously talented, often risking a straightforward goal when he had the option of a showing off but he was loved by the crowd. But from his playing in an era before multi-million-dollar deals and sponsorships, he now survives as a landlord in Rio and gets by on the rent from his properties. As Futebol follows him, they find that the life of an ex-footballer can be a difficult and a disappointing one. Without an education and a career to fall back on, Caju needs to beg for tickets to football functions, is shocked at the price of the car owned by his lawyer and mourns the his lack of recognition. What happens when a star of one footballing era sits forgotten by those that followed him?
I'm of the opinion that Brazil are most football fan's favourite second team so it's fitting that Futebol looks at the different stages of the game in the country, particularly when it presents players a world away from the well-known figures of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Juninho. Like Gus Caesar at Arsenal, Iranildo and Lúcio fell from favour at Flamengo but in their stories we learn more about the modern game than we do in a hundred documentaries about Henry, Beckham or any other stars of the coming World Cup. Lúcio's isolation in the team plane says much about how he is not made to feel welcome and when the competition for places and for win bonuses leaves Romario laughing in front of the makers of this documentary - Joao Moreira Salles of Videofilmes - at Lúcio's discomfort, we learn much about the lack of a team spirit within, oddly, a football team.
But the stories of players like Ronaldinho and Ronaldo represent a very small peak at the top of the footballing pyramid. Those of Fabricio, Lúcio, Caju, Iranildo, Jeosmar and Edmilson represent the true spirit of football as a game, as much as those players you'll see in a park on a Sunday morning putting all their effort in a game that no one else cares about. In the players featured in Futebol, there's the feeling that they have not chosen football but that it has chosen them and that they must play. Even in seeing Fabricio finally get his apprenticeship at a club where the grass on the pitch is kept short by a grazing sheep, there's some happiness in seeing him make it no matter how far.
Yes, it's a story about disappointment but Futebol is also a story about how any playing of football is also a triumph. We may stifle a laugh at reading about Gus Caesar falling over at Wembley but unlike the vast majority of us, at least he was there and for that and for making a career out of a sport he loved, he ought to be congratulated. Similarly, Fabricio may not have gotten far but he's playing and no longer kicking a football made of socks about the streets of the favela in which he grew up. Neither is he involved in a street gang nor drug dealing but he's clearly proud of his contributing to his family's home and of the medical care that he receives as an apprentice. We may never hear of him outside of Futebol but he's clearly doing what he loves. How many of us can say the same?
Released by Verve Pictures, Futebol comes out on four discs, all of which have plenty of room for the eighty-minute features, but it is presented non-anamorphically, appearing grainy and noisy when zoomed up to fullscreen on a 16:9 television set. Watching this on a big plasma screen didn't leave Futebol looking the best that it could, then, in the circumstances so the smaller the screen the better. Again, though, what's noticeable is that it can occasionally look good - the title screens between chapters don't look at all bad, for example - but the bright yellow forced subtitles and the rough footage give Futebol an unimpressive look. The audio track - there's only one option, English Stereo - is fairly good but, much like the picture quality, it sounds a little rough with a small amount of background hiss.
In the nature of these things, we received only the first three discs of this four disc set. Reading the press release, this fourth disc includes further interviews with the likes of Pelé, Dada and Zico but whether these are duplicates of what's already in the three features or are entirely new material is not something that's clear from what we received. .
Apparently, the BBC will be showing select matches from this year's World Cup, which this has been released in time for, in High-Definition should you have the right hardware but as good as that will no doubt be, international football hasn't been quite the same without the fuzzy pictures, the bee-in-a-bean-tin sound of the crowd and of a commentary from Brian Moore sounding as though it's been broadcast via walkie-talkie. Think back to the World Cups of that television era and it's hard not to think of Brazil with their yellow-and-green kit and players like Pele, the bearded Socrates - my favourite non-Arsenal and non-Ireland player - and Caju.
It's refreshing, then, to see something approaching the truth of the game in modern-day Brazil as well as its history but good though Futebol is, its DVD release is clearly a disappointment. A non-anamorphic presentation is obviously a problem as televisions get bigger and this doesn't look at all good on something like a plasma but the feature material is strong and if you need a taster for the forthcoming World Cup, you could do worse.