Greg Lalas on soccer cinema: outstanding documentaries; inspiring, informative and fun films; and the eternal appeal of 'Victory'

In 2009, soccer journalist Greg Lalas and Rachel Markus  founded the Kicking+Screening Soccer Film Festival, which has held more than 20 events globally. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of its annual flagship New York City festival in 2020, but K+S is in the midst of planning the 2021 festival for later this year and is taking submissions with a June 1 deadline. The K+S website, newsletter and Twitter page  have also continued to provide soccer cinema news, its sister company Kicking + Screening Media Group helps distribute soccer films, and its website hosts movies for rental streaming.

Lalas has served as Vice President of Content at Major League Soccer, Editor-in-Chief of USA, on-camera talent for the New England Revolution, and soccer columnist for Sports Illustrated. He is also on the advisory board of Soccer Without Borders.

SOCCER AMERICA: How did Kicking + Screening come about?

GREG LALAS: K+S came about when my cofounder, Rachel Markus, and I went on a blind date back in 2009. The only reason we were set up was because the two matchmakers knew we were both into soccer. Period. Not bad reasoning, obviously, because during our date, Rachel mentioned that she had tried to launch a soccer film festival when she was living in London. It didn’t work out in London, but I loved the idea and said, “Let’s do it here. In New York.” Three months later, we had our first festival. So even though the date didn’t work out romantically, it worked out creatively or, to some extent, professionally.

SA: A decade-plus later, has it achieved what you had hoped for when it launched? In what way has it been a success?

GREG LALAS: Honestly, I don’t think it’s achieved what we hoped when it launched. It’s been a success, in some ways, because it is still around 12 years later. But it hasn’t necessarily grown the way we would’ve liked. There are lots of reasons for that, the main one being that none of us have had the time to devote ourselves entirely to it. A dozen years on, this is still a labor of love. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been successful. We’ve built a unique community of soccer-film lovers, and provided a platform for many, many soccer filmmakers to show films to an audience that cares about their work. Plus, most importantly, we — the K+S staff and the festival fans — have had a lot of fun. What more could you ask for? After all, this is about entertainment.

SA: How has the pandemic affected the Film Festival?

GREG LALAS: Well, we didn’t have the festival in 2020. First we postponed and then we canceled. It’s a bummer, but, you know, it’s a frickin’ pandemic and people are dying. A little labor-of-love film festival can wait.

SA: Has there been a change in the number of soccer movies being produced when you started K+S in 2009 and a decade later?

GREG LALAS: Not really sure. We would guess yes, and certainly more submissions from the U.S. Plus, of course, there are many more TV series about soccer now than 10 years.

SA: It seems there's no shortage of people creating soccer documentaries. What separates those that achieve significant distribution and the ones that don't?

GREG LALAS: The difference is simple: money and starpower. Most of the soccer documentaries tell “small" stories. Local stories. Quiet stories. These are important stories, no doubt, but they are not very well funded and they simply don’t have the same opportunity to break through to the mainstream as something with a bold-faced name attached to it. That name could be the subject (e.g., Diego Maradona), the star (e.g., Eric Cantona in Looking for Eric), the story (e.g., the 1998 French national team’s World Cup win in Les Yeux dans les Bleus), or the filmmakers (e.g., the Zimbalist brothers, directors of The Two Escobars).

SA: What are the qualities of a documentary that make you enjoy it and recommend it?

GREG LALAS: The story matters, of course. But it’s not the story alone. It’s how the story is told — drama, consequences, creative use of imagery, animation, and, very importantly, unique access to the subjects involved. As for all of our film selections, we ask: Does this film stand on its own and would someone who is not a soccer fan be drawn into it?

SA: Not that there's no value to a labor of love, but how frequently do soccer documentaries produce a profit for the filmmaker?

GREG LALAS: Rarely. But not impossible. Outside the U.S., some soccer docs have really popped locally. For example, in El Salvador, One: The Story of a Goal was among the highest-grossing films in the nation the year it came out.

SA: Is there a topic, person or chapter of the history in soccer that you think deserves a documentary that hasn't been made yet?

GREG LALAS: Many, but a few that stick out: Joe McGinnis’s book The Miracle of Castel di Sangro would make for a good movie. And the story of Quini’s kidnapping in 1981 would be amazing. It could be a cross between Money Heist and Raising Arizona.

SA: Are there any soccer movies or documentaries coming out that you're particularly looking forward to?

GREG LALAS: A lot. Here are a few being made in the US. Rachel Viollet, a fine filmmaker who happens to be the daughter of former Manchester United and England star Dennis Viollet, is putting the finishing touches to a film about the old NASL, titled Big-Time Soccer. The trailer is out already. For longtime American soccer fans, I think it’ll give us all the feels. And the new generation of soccer fans will hopefully love a look at the thrill ride that was the NASL. Another one is Warriors of a Beautiful Game, a documentary about women’s soccer that is being made by Kely Nascimento-DeLuca. Another very American one that is just getting off the ground is Tom McCabe and Kirk Rudell’s Voice of the Game, about legendary coach Manny Schellscheidt. And there are more that we are aware of but can’t discuss at the moment.

SA: So many people we've interviewed when we asked what their favorite soccer movie is say "Victory". What makes that movie special?

GREG LALAS: Oh, man, where do I start? I guess the best place to start is the timing. I mean, here’s a legitimate Hollywood film that came out when the game was not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination here in America. The high point of the NASL had passed. Pele was retired for three or four years. The U.S, men's national team was an afterthought. The idea that the U.S. would ever host the World Cup was laughable. So, for a certain generation of American soccer fanatics — children of the Pele generation, as the filmmaker Tom McCabe put it recentlyVictory was like Citizen Kane or Star Wars.

It’s similar to why some of us wax poetic about Soccer Made in Germany, early morning English matches on Setanta Sports, and coming across random games on Spanish-language channels. It’s all we had for many years, and it provided us with proof that soccer was more than orange slices and Memorial Day youth tournaments in Minnesota. It was like approval of our love of soccer.

Next, the talent involved. I mean, wow. Just watch the credits. It's all bold-faced names. The director, to begin with, John Huston, who won multiple Oscars over his 50 years of filmmaking. Next, the talent on the screen. Michael Caine, Sly Stallone — who was still in the Rocky afterglow — Max von Sydow, Daniel Massey, Tim Pigott-Smith, to name a few. These are actors with Oscars and Tonys and BAFTA Awards in their trophy cases. Finally, the players. Huston didn’t just get extras who could passably kick a ball. He got Pelé, the best player in history (up till then, at least) and gave him a starring role. Then, to round out the squads, Huston got more world-class players, including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, John Wark, Mike Summerbee, Russell Osman, the Belgian Paul Van Himst, the Polish legend Kazimierz Deyna, and, of course, Werner Roth, the former Cosmos star who featured as the captain of the Nazi team. These guys were full internationals and longtime pros, many of whom played in the NASL. That’s why so much of the soccer action looks legit. Other than Caine and Stallone, the players are all legitimately world class.

Finally, the story. It's classic Hollywood fare. A great underdog story of the oppressed rising up. The good guys beat the bad guys despite their disadvantages. It’s in the tradition of celebrated sports classics like Hoosiers or The Longest Yard. And it’s got this undertone that soccer can bring the world together. All the POWs are from different countries but they have a common love of the game. Same for Max von Sydow’s Nazi character. Ultimately, his passion for soccer and his appreciation for the POWs’ play is more important than politics or nationalism. It’s not nuanced or anything. But it’s great entertainment.

Whew, that’s a lot of words. Goes to show what the film means to me. To so many of us.

SA: Would you be able to answer this Victory trivia question without looking it up? What country was Pele's character from?

GREG LALAS: Easy. Trinidad. Can even recite the scene.

COLBY: Where’d you learn to do that?
LUIS: In Trinidad. With the oranges.

I love imagining Pelé in a T&T jersey, playing in Concacaf back in the day.

SA: Let's say there's a household with teenage soccer players picking a movie for the evening, what might you recommend?

GREG LALAS: Let’s stick to American films again. I’d say Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story or Messi & Me. They both tell the story of what someone who doesn’t have a usual soccer background can achieve through determination, resilience, and luck. And Soccertown USA, Kirk Rudell and Tom McCabe’s film about Kearny, New Jersey, hometown of Tony Meola, John Harkes and Tab Ramos.

SA: Obviously most soccer movies and documentaries are about men's game. Can you recommend ones about girls and/or women's soccer?

GREG LALAS: One important one is Football for Better or for Worse, directed by Inger Molin. It’s a Swedish film about FC Rosengard, a big women’s club in Europe where Marta used to play, and its struggles to survive and compete in the face of the multiple systemic inequities in the game. Another good one is Coach, which tells the story of college coach Tracy Hamm and her efforts to get the UEFA “A” badge after coming across too many barriers to get the top license in the U.S. Finally, I still think Bend It Like Beckham holds up. It’s cheesy but it's message of empowerment and independence is timeless.

SA: There are movies one can access for streaming on the Kicking + Screening web site ...

GREG LALAS: Right now, we have five films available through our sister company, Kicking + Screening Media Group, which we founded in order to help distribute some of these great films that are not seen enough. People can rent and stream Anderson Monarchs, Messi & Me, and Football for Better or for Worse. Also available are Soka Afrika, about the trafficking of African players to Europe, and After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United, about an Arab-majority club in Israel. Speaking of Israel, we have a new film from there, titled Playing for Peace, coming online in the next few months. It’s about the club Hapeol Beer’Sheva’s remarkable rise from the second division to be national champions and the culture of inclusion that helped them do it. We’re looking to add more and more films soon.

Greg Lalas's
Favorite Soccer Documentaries
Les Yeux Dans Les Bleus. One of the original access films. The filmmakers were inside with the French national team during the 1998 World Cup. Their access was incredible. They were at the pre-tournament training camp, on the field for matches, in the locker room after Zidane’s red card, and the final celebration. It’s terrific and the first film we ever showed at the festival.

The Last Yugoslavian Football Team. Vuk Janic made a film about the players from the super-talented Yugoslavian youth team that won the world championship in 1987 and how they became enemies as their nation crumbled during the wars in the 1990s.

Nossa Chapa. The story of the Chapecoense airplane crash. Heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time.

The Game of their Lives (the UK one): The story of North Korea’s win over Italy at the 1966 World Cup, directed by Daniel Gordon, who has made multiple World Cup recap films.

Favorite USA-made soccer documentaries

Club Frontera. Chris Cashman’s film about Club Tijuana and its cross-border fan base.

Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story. Mentioned this one before. Jay’s a great person and the story of his career, from an unknown kid from Wisconsin with a dream to be a pro player in England is so inspiring.

Once in a Lifetime: The rollicking story of the New York Cosmos in the 1970s. It’s quite a ride.

Favorite soccer TV series

Ted Lasso. Just watch it. It’s got a big heart and plenty of laughs. Jason Sudeikis is a genius who rises above the temptation of cheap shots.

Sunderland 'Til I Die. The first credible access series in English soccer, the story of the club’s double relegation is the stuff of legend.

Six Dreams. Justin Webster, who made The Ref and Barcelona Confidential, delves into La Liga from multiple angles.

All-time favorite soccer movies (pre-K+S)

Victory. See above.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. It was relatively groundbreaking at the time (though there was a similar film in the 70s focused on George Best) and showed so much of soccer genius close-up.

The Two Escobars. I was in the stadium when Andres Escobar scored the fateful own goal against the USA that eventually inspired his murder. So the story felt almost personal. The film is such a terrific example of good storytelling — the impact and connections of little moments on big stories.

G’Ole. The FIFA film from the 1982 World Cup, narrated by Sean Connery, is a real classic.

Vision Quest. Sure, it’s actually a wrestling movie, but the scene when Elmo talks about crying while watching Pelé gives me chills still. This was in 1985, so soccer was nothing in America at the time. And Elmo’s little speech to Loudon captured everything I felt about the game: "I was in the room here one day... watchin' the Mexican channel on TV. I don't know nothin' about Pele. I'm watchin' what this guy can do with a ball and his feet. Next thing I know, he jumps in the air and flips into a somersault and kicks the ball in -- upside down and backwards ... the goddamn goalie never knew what the fuck hit him. Pele gets excited and he rips off his jersey and starts running around the stadium waving it around his head. Everybody's screaming in Spanish. I'm here, sitting alone in my room, and I start crying. That's right, I start crying. Because another human being, a species that I happen to belong to, could kick a ball, and lift himself, and the rest of us sad-assed human beings, up to a better place to be, if only for a minute... let me tell ya, kid - it was pretty goddamned glorious.” Amen, Elmo.

3 comments about "Greg Lalas on soccer cinema: outstanding documentaries; inspiring, informative and fun films; and the eternal appeal of 'Victory'".
  1. Pablo Miralles, February 12, 2021 at 4:21 p.m.

    What about that film featuring that handsome SA writer Mike Woitalla? :-)

  2. James Madison, February 12, 2021 at 4:33 p.m.

    For not well known, but charming soccer fims, try "The Cup" and "Coup de Tete." 

    Plus points for the rating of any film which includes any soccer, such as "Dead Poets Society."

  3. Dan Woog, February 13, 2021 at 7:14 a.m.

    And then there's "Manny Orphans," the 1978 "Bad News Bears" knockoff starring Werner Roth. Of course, I may be biased (I played the referee, and directed all the soccer scenes). Spoiler alert: The orphans beat the prep school kids. 

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications