Until this year, the closest that China had come to a footballing blockbuster was Shaolin Soccer, the story of a group of monks who take their brand of kung-fu onto the soccer field.
But China is desperate to raise the quality of its footballers (see WiC275). Backed by the country’s most powerful football fan, the nation’s leader Xi Jinping, the government recently unveiled a national campaign to spur the long-term development of the sport, including the launch of a new soccer training programme for schools.
Xi’s major goal is for China to host a World Cup one day.
Linked to the effort to drum up grass roots interest in the sport, Shanghai Morning Post is reporting on a related trend in the broadcasting industry.
This will see TV schedules ditch historical period pieces reviling Japanese wartime atrocities (see WiC187), and replace them with football-themed drama series.
The newspaper revealed a list of over a dozen programmes about football that will soon be aired on television. Five dramas have already filed for approval with the watchdog, the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, and it seems that they are getting a favourable reception. The censors have even turned a blind eye to a time-travel series (a drama concept that was restricted in 2011 for “promoting feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation”). One of the new soccer shows, which is based on an online novel called Football God Zhang Tiehan, tells the story of a Chinese prodigy who travels through time to play for Manchester United (admittedly, not that far back: to 2003). He becomes a worldwide celebrity after besting superstars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Another of the football series takes a few artistic liberties with the history of the sport. Not only does it claim that football originated in China, it also traces the history of the Golden Boot (which has been awarded to the top scorer at World Cup finals since 1982) all the way back to the Song Dynasty (where it was supposedly presented to the best players of cuju). Sohu Entertainment says the series will also touch on footballing woes like match-fixing, crooked referees and illegal gambling.
“The football reform plan (released in March) has prompted big film and TV bosses to free-ride on the football trend. But the problem is, Chinese soccer is really not very impressive,” one critic of the new group of football dramas has claimed. “We also have no football legends to gloat about. As the old saying goes, even the best housewife can’t make dinner if there is no rice. So the only way to make up a story is to use time-travel or celebrities like Messi.”
Meanwhile, Go! Goal! Fighting! will start a 35-episode run this summer telling the story of a failing high school coach who leads his students to victory.
Worried that viewers might find the football scenes too boring, the producers have spiced things up with a love triangle between the coach, an attractive colleague (played by starlet Jiang Shuying) and the middle-aged school principal.
But Li Guoli, director of Go! Goal! Fighting!, told Shanghai Morning Post that he expects the series to be popular with viewers because few dramas in China cover themes like sporting success and the joys of teamwork.
“The show is mainly about the positive energy of youth. Regardless of how soccer is presented on the show, it will definitely appeal to young audiences” is Li’s verdict.
China Film Group, the state-owned giant, has also revealed plans to bring the sport to the big screen, with a motivational blockbuster called Journal of Football. It says it is even trying to convince Argentinian legend Diego Maradona to play a role in the film because he promotes “patriotism, love of family and love of football”.
Producers at rival movie Love of Football – which has just started filming and isn’t expected to get to cinemas until much later this year – says it plans to invite present-day stars like Messi to participate too.
Still, critics are sceptical about how the football-themed dramas will work. “Some directors have quietly grumbled to the media that trying to make a TV show based on football is even harder than China playing football well itself. The problem is that many of these shows are so out of touch with reality. And audiences are so fed up with anti-Japanese TV series that the last thing they want is to be stuck with propaganda-esque football dramas… If China has so much money to spend on making football series why can’t they use it to build a few more soccer fields?” the Shanghai Morning Post asks.
But that doesn’t mean football dramas shouldn’t be made, ripostes the Beijing Times. “The key is how they are filmed. Are they well produced? Do they respect the sport? If they just follow the trend blindly, it will only be detrimental,” it warns.
Truth be told, football has rarely fared well on the silver screen, although Bend it Like Beckham (2002) and Gregory’s Girl (1981) deserve honourable mentions.
Also released in 1981 was the deeply implausible World War Two flick Escape to Victory in which a team of Allied prisoners (led by Michael Caine, with Bobby Moore, Pele and even Sylvester Stallone as an unlikely goalkeeper) takes on a German national side in a Nazi propaganda fest in occupied Paris.
In scenes that might resonate with Chinese soccer fans (longtime sufferers of off-field skulduggery and match-fixing), the Allied team secures an extremely unlikely draw.
In a lesson that is repeating itself with the crop of current Chinese dramas today, the football action struggles valiantly to resist fantasy. Apparently, Stallone was determined to score the winner in the match, only to be told that – as the goalie – it really wouldn’t be very true to life. Undeterred, Sly saves a penalty from the Germans in the final minute instead.
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