Bleacher Report

How 'Goal!' Went from a Wild Idea to a Cult Movie Franchise for Football Fans

Robert O'Connor

"I told the girl in the book shop I was looking for How to Be a Film Producer. She looked out the window and saw the Ferrari, heard the English accent, and suddenly I’m waking up the following morning next to her and her girlfriend. I thought, ‘This never happened to me when I was working in publishing.’"

It’s just gone past 11 a.m. in Los Angeles and Mike Jefferies is midway through a sprawling symposium on the subject of how he made one of football film culture’s most cherished artifacts, the 2005 film Goal! It’s the story of Santiago Munez, the young boy from an L.A. barrio who defies the odds to win a contract with Newcastle United in the Premier League.

It’s a narrative dripping in cliche from the moment Nunez is spotted playing street soccer by English former-pro-turned-L.A.-mechanic Glen Foy, to the injury-time winner at the season’s finale that catapults the American wonderkid and his team into the Champions League. You couldn’t make it up. But if you did, it would look something like this. Which is precisely what Jefferies did.

The film has been held in mixed regard in the UK. Considering the high esteem in which English football holds itself, that is hardly surprising. Goal! was aimed, at least from a marketing perspective, at those developing football markets where there was not already a rushing tide of interest fuelled by a thriving football league and more than a century of associated culture. The authorities—that is to say, the game’s self-appointed guardians, be they administrative in Switzerland or commercial in the US–had a message to spread. Hence, the relationship between the film’s two major stakeholders—the filmmakers and the football clubs—became a symbiotic exchange of access for exposure.

Goal!’s genesis goes back more than 15 years, and has its roots in a real-life football blockbuster. It was May 2001 and Jefferies had travelled back to Cannes, where as a newcomer to film he had been immersing himself in the Cannes Film Festival “doing research”. He came from Dortmund, having just witnessed his beloved Liverpool beat Deportivo Alaves 5-4 in the final of the UEFA Cup at the Westfalenstadion, completing a unique domestic and European cup treble.

Peter Kramer/Getty Images

He was staying at the Hotel du Cap, the glitzy enclave that for two weeks every year becomes a temporary home to the glitterati of the film industry. It is austere to the bone, a shorthand for refinement and arch exclusivity.

“There was a little fraternity that would gather around the swimming pool every day where everybody kind of got to know one another,” recalls Jefferies. “I walked back into the pool area on the morning after the UEFA Cup Final wearing this ridiculous bright crimson, scarlet shirt that I had bought outside the stadium announcing Liverpool’s treble. Which was really not the thing to do at the Hotel du Cap.

“So here I am, an absolute lout and probably still drunk from the night before, in this ridiculous T-shirt, and suddenly there’s a clap. Then there’s another clap, and then a full ripple. And they weren’t clapping me of course, they were clapping the incredible 5-4 game that everybody had been watching the previous evening on TV and that historic victory. It was a very surreal moment where I thought, ‘F--k, that’s it!’ Here I was at the heart of the Cannes Film Festival in this garish red shirt, and it was getting this reaction. It was a light bulb moment. There had never been a big movie made about football.”

How much you subscribe to that assessment is a matter of personal taste. Certainly there have been football films that have been hugely influential, and which have left an indelible mark on the culture of football fandom. Escape to Victory and The Damned United have, to different extents and for different generations, piggybacked on the dramatic potential football has to tickle the senses. When Saturday Comes and Bend It Like Beckham have been loathed and loved seemingly at the same time. But arguably none have gone as close to the bone as Goal! with the way it embedded itself within the football DNA, rousing the undying optimist that exists in some dormant form inside every football fan. In football they say it’s the hope that kills you. On the silver screen, it makes things come to life.

The idea relied on one fairly central tenant: It must be made in the world of football. Filmmaker Oliver Stone, the first associate in a sequence of unlikely bedfellows for a football underdog story, advised Jefferies not to make the film in spite of the football industry, but rather in cooperation with it. Stone’s 1999 film Any Given Sunday had written its story into a fictional world and had suffered because of it. This time, there was to be no Premier League equivalent of the fictional NFL team Miami Sharks, which, as Jefferies says, would have cut the legs of authenticity from under the film.

Kuno Becker played Santiago Munez MJ Kim/Getty Images

It was through a network of influencers, the kind that is the lifeblood of the two industries that were to collide on Goal!, that Jefferies found himself in front of FIFA’s then-president, Sepp Blatter. Jefferies knew a sports business consultant, Jonathan Harris, who in turn had a relationship with one of Blatter’s closest advisors, Peter Hargitay. It was Hargitay, a man who had the president’s ear, who set up the meeting for Jefferies with Blatter.

“I just asked for a couple of encouraging words into the ears of the people who run the game, at club level and with sponsors. The plan was always for the first film to take place in the Premier League in England, and then for the second one to take place in the Champions League with one of the big continental clubs. And Blatter was really helpful. He opened a lot of doors for me. It felt a bit like going to meet the head of one of the five families,” he says with reflective a smile. “It was surreal. Suddenly, I was sat doing a press conference in Zurich next to Sepp Blatter. Having been a football nut all my life, that was so surreal. For a while, it was like being inside a shadowy star chamber. The stories I could tell you...” laughs Jefferies. “I really should write a book about it!”

There is a sense in which Goal! plugs into the lived experiences that Jefferies went through to get his film off the ground. A self-made man from Merseyside, he had been a leading industry figure in media and publishing before L.A. had sucked him into the world of filmmaking, a decision which he credits in part to a conversation with the late Brittany Murphy at a dinner at the turn of the century.

Liverpool's Rick Parry turned down the movie DAVE THOMPSON/Associated Press/Associated Press

His world had changed quickly and radically. Publishing was in the past, replaced instead by Hollywood glitz and the occasional salacious rendezvous amongst the stacks of LA book stores. But one part of his past would never leave, and it was to present a Faustian dilemma that would make the blood of a football fan run cold. The film needed a football club, and there was only one place that Liverpool disciple and Scouser Jefferies was going to look.

“It was one of the worst moments I’ve had in my professional life,” he says of the day in 2001 when he took his proposal to Anfield chief executive Rick Parry. “The worst thing that’s happened since I’ve been an adult.”

The way it unfolded was tragicomic. Jefferies had flown from Cape Town to the UK to meet with Parry and the Liverpool hierarchy. At the airport, he had brought a jacket which had been handed to him in a Manchester United bag. This was to provide him with his opening salvo.

“I said to Rick that this was the reason Liverpool should do the film with us. At this point, in 2002, Manchester United had pretty much caught up with Liverpool and were pulling away. David Moores [Liverpool’s owner] was doing what he could to correct that. I’d arranged with Rick’s assistant for there to be a TV with a DVD player, so I could show this three-minute short I had made in Cape Town to help give him an idea of what we wanted to do.

“Initially, Rick wasn’t interested in seeing it. After I said, ‘Look, I’ve made this for you. I’ve come a long way to show it to you,’ he relented and he sent someone to go and find one of these old TVs with a VHS slot in the front. So here were are in the Liverpool board room, the room where every player that I had up on my wall as a kid signed their contracts, my hallowed chamber, and the cable for the TV won’t reach the wall. The most surreal moment of my life was me and Rick Parry picking up the Liverpool FC boardroom table and moving it closer to the wall so we could plug in a TV.”

Parry was disparaging, sour, uninterested. Jefferies was heartbroken. But things only got worse.

Manchester United were keen to see Santiago Munez at Old Trafford FRANCOIS MORI/Associated Press

The next day, the idea was peddled to Peter Kenyon and Peter Draper in the commercial offices of Old Trafford. Kenyon and Draper loved it. Suddenly it was United, not Liverpool, who were potentially going to be the film’s fulcrum. Within the month, Jefferies was back in L.A. being courted by Sir Alex Ferguson, hobnobbing with Ryan Giggs. “I wanted to kill myself,” Jefferies says.

By 2002, the commercialization of English football was augmenting at breakneck speed. The formula for success had changed and new blueprints were emerging to harness audiences in a worldwide, digital era. United had surpassed Liverpool as a market force and as the dominant football power. The Anfield commercial operation was average, housed in modest offices clad in cheap looking, wood-effect plastic panelling. United’s were all smoke glass and chrome. As Jefferies describes it: “Kubrick-esque, like something out of a Christopher Nolan film. It was the future”.

It was no accident that the same people who had aggressively marketed United to the world, who had put the club crest on a Duty Free plastic bag at Cape Town International Airport, had also spotted the potential for their brand in Jefferies’ proposal. They had recognised Goal! for what it was: a chance to ruthlessly promote the club to new markets, primarily in the U.S. and Asia, but for which the producers would put up all of the capital and undertake the majority of the work. There was just one problem.

“Driving away from a meeting in L.A. with Ferguson and the others, it wasn’t even bittersweet for me,” says Jefferies. “I just felt sick with it.”

He makes no attempt now to disguise that he was thinking with his heart, despite the undoubted coup he had pulled off in winning United’s cooperation without shelling out a penny.

“As a Liverpool fan, I would rather have not made the film than done it with Manchester United,” he says.

There was not much more than a few hours between leaving the meeting with United in L.A. and the call coming from Freddy Shepherd, then Newcastle United chairman, asking to meet with Jefferies in “the hotel where they filmed Pretty Woman” to discuss “this football film you’re doing.” Once Shepherd had made his club’s interest clear, the deal with Old Trafford was dead in the water, and the project had a new course.

Newcastle United's St James' Park would become Munez's first home in Europe SCOTT HEPPELL/Associated Press

Make no mistake: The wrangling that went on to get Goal! on its feet was a true corporate hustle. The $50m deal that was struck between the producers and Adidas was, at the time - and still is - the biggest ever between a corporate brand and a film production. The two parties recognised the potential each other had to offer in a flash. The symbiosis was palpable. The only real surprise was that a relationship of this kind had never been synthesized before.

Danny Stepper had been an account executive at Coca-Cola in Seattle before teaming up with Jefferies to work on the film in 2002.

“Mike was a maniac,” he says of their first meeting. “He’s calmed down a lot since, but back then, he was just a house on fire. He’d acquired something of a reputation in Beverly Hills, and when we first talked about making the film, he was just so, so persuasive.”

Goal! was a brand-building exercise, its sponsorship deals unprecedented in scope, according to Stepper. Coca-Cola broke its mold in going in to bat for the film, making it just the second feature production ever to feature on its packaging, after Harry Potter. Former commercial director and close friend of Stepper, the late Chuck Fruit, was a great believer in connecting the Coke brand with the raw passion of sport, primarily football. Adidas saw a chance to tap fresh markets, and the film was marketed around the world via its retail partners. Disney, who became the film’s distributor, put $40 million into advertising alone, Stepper said.

Former Coca-Cola executive Danny Stepper helped get brands involved in the project Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

Stepper’s influence was indispensable. As an insider at Coke, he greased the gears, and his commercial acumen won the trust of the company’s decision-makers from the beginning of negotiations. As Jefferies had done at Old Trafford, Stepper found in Fruit an ally whose business sense chimed along with that of two excitable, untested producers and an enthusiasm for a fairy story set in the world of football. FIFA, Adidas and Coke all held hands together, providing a mutual assurance that the unlikely pairing of an expat media mogul and a savvy marketing man could never have offered alone.

“Every sport needs its Rocky,” says Stepper.

The alignment of the brands came easily, especially with the validation provided by FIFA’s endorsement. “Tactical issues, “Stepper says, then corrects himself, ”opportunities, actually,” were the tricky part.  The film was almost derailed when the pair hired the wrong director. Lancashire-born Michael Winterbottom, began shooting without a script and had ideas for Goal! which clashed badly with the Disney-themed, family-oriented intentions of the producers and sponsors. The two also naively began filming without a distribution deal in place, an almost unheard-of step in the film world. Had the deal with Disney not materialized, the project—along with its expensive baggage—would have been ditched, its legacy nothing more than an $8 million hole in the ground.

“Most film projects don’t recover from the mistakes we made,” says Stepper. “It was almost devastating. But somehow, we found a way to win. We stopped the production and then got the production back up, which almost never happens in Hollywood. I think we actually benefited from our own non-experience. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Where most productions fall down, we just picked ourselves up.”

The deal with Disney rested on the global reach that a film about football would make possible. Mark Zoradi was the head of Disney International and made the call on the premise that, unlike traditional Hollywood sports films predicated on U.S.-oriented sports, Goal! could expect to sell around the world.

“We’d started shooting by then and the meter was running” says stepper, “so we really needed that meeting with Mark at Disney to go well. Without it, we’d have been in a very deep and dark place.”

Adidas’ involvement was too lucrative to be utilized only for a single 90-minute feature film. Suddenly, the producers were thinking sequel, franchise, legacy. There were commercial doors still left unopened, but also a narrative potential that had only just begun to be explored by the first film. Santiago Munez’s ambition was not going to be satiated by a squad place at Newcastle United, and before the film was even cast, its creator was back in the boardroom looking for partners for Goal II, this time at the world’s most recognizable football brand.

British actress Anna Friel played Munez's love interest MJ Kim/Getty Images

Jefferies went to meet Real Madrid, who got it just as quickly as Manchester United had. Commercially speaking, they were light years ahead of Liverpool. At the first meeting between the parties, Jose Angel Sanchez, then the commercial director at the Bernabeu and now CEO, laid down terms that were concise and to the point: Shake my hand now, cancel your meetings with any other clubs, and we have a deal; but if you walk out of here without shaking hands, don’t ever show your face here again. No crisis of conscience this time for Jefferies.

“Shortly after we agreed with Real, I was told by Jose Angel - who is still one of my very closest friends - to arrive at Barajas Airport one weekend at a given time, not knowing what to expect,” he says. “So I arrive on the Friday and I’m shown up to this room where civilians aren’t normally allowed into and they’re all there: Beckham, Ronaldo, Figo, Zidane. And I’m taken to one side and given a Real Madrid tracksuit and told just to immerse myself in the experience. And then off we go on a jet to Barcelona for the Clasico.

“Then we get to Barcelona and we find that we have to walk through the civilian part of the airport, and all of a sudden, the atmosphere changes in the group. Everything becomes quite tense. And when the door through to arrivals opens, we are met with this wall of hundreds of Barcelona fans, an absolute sea of bile and hate. We were in single file as we passed. I think I had Roberto Carlos in front of me and Ronaldo behind, and we’re being spat at and having god knows what thrown at us.

“And that’s how it was for the whole time we were there. There was maybe a thousand Barca fans camped out at the hotel who wouldn’t let us in, rocking the bus and throwing bricks, smashing the windows. And I’m there in the middle of this chaos, just pinching myself. You cannot buy this kind of experience. I felt like a fan who had snuck backstage.”

Those blurred lines between fiction and reality are what have helped Goal! to survive as a culturally curious artifact. The teams, players and stadiums that prop up the weekly drama of the Premier League are the film’s canvas, but a fictional landscape is painted in, which puts fans in neither one place nor another. At the end of one Newcastle victory at St. James’s Park during the 2003-04 season, the lead actors, Kuno Becker and Alessandro Nivola, leapt from behind an advertising hoarding and joined the players as they congratulated each other on the pitch. The Newcastle team knew nothing about it.   

Jefferies remembers the incredulous reaction of MLS chief Don Garber upon seeing Becker trot out as part of the Real lineup during a pre-season friendly tournament in Madrid. The following day, Spanish sports daily Marca ran a back page with a red circle around Becker’s face, alongside the headline ‘Who?’ The access afforded to the production was unprecedented, and it created a kind of halfway world which had just enough of the trappings of reality for fans to accept it, but which somehow still looked and felt alien.

Real Madrid would be Munez's home for the sequel BERNAT ARMANGUE/Associated Press

Whatever its pitfalls, the film took more than $27.5 million globally at the box office, though only around $4 million of that came in the U.S. Home media sales in the U.S. boosted that figure by another $12 million, which when taken together, represents a neat enough return for a film where much of the risk was mitigated by free access to major brands. This was more than 10  years before Premier League media revenues hit the billion-pound mark, and Goal! was absorbed by football’s developing markets at a time when English and European football were rapidly becoming more conspicuous internationally.

Goal! came along at unique moment. Whether we believe the film piggybacked onto the game’s growing popularity around the world or helped to transport it there probably depends on a deeper analysis of changing digital trends within sport in the first few years of the new millennium.

The story of Santiago Munez, though, doesn’t make these demands of us. It is a romance to be experienced on an emotional level, just as its creator found out in the boardrooms of Anfield and Old Trafford. Perhaps that should be enough.


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