"Goal! The Dream Begins" is a rags-to-riches sports saga containing all the usual elements, arranged in the usual ways, and yet it's surprisingly effective. We have the kid from Mexico who dreams of soccer stardom, his impoverished life in Los Angeles as an undocumented immigrant, his dad who scorns soccer, his grandmother who believes in him, the scout who gets him a tryout with a top British team, the superstar who befriends him, and even a pretty nurse. There is also a great deal of soccer, some of it looking real, some of it not.
The movie works because it is, above all, sincere. It's not sports by the numbers. The starring performance by Kuno Becker is convincing and dimensional and we begin to care for him. He plays Santiago Munez, a busboy in a Los Angeles Chinese restaurant, who plays in an after-work soccer league so deprived that he wears cardboard shin protectors. Then he's spotted by a former soccer pro (Stephen Dillane), who tells him he has potential, and arranges for him to get a tryout with Newcastle United.
That would however involve an air ticket to England. Santiago has some money saved, but his dad (Tony Plana) nicks it to buy a pickup truck and start his own landscaping business. This is cruel, but perhaps more practical than betting the money on a future in soccer. Santiago's grandmother (Miriam Colon) says she hasn't worked for a lifetime without having some savings, and pays for him to fly to London out of Mexico City -- a wise precaution, since he has no American passport or identity.
In Newcastle, Santiago undergoes a rough initiation at the hands of the hardened soccer pros, gets his first experience of soccer in the mud, and almost loses his place on the team because of his asthma. What saves him is an accidental friendship with the team's superstar Gavin Harris (Alessandro Nivola), a party animal. How the season turns out and how Santiago fares I will leave for you to discover, not only in this movie, but in "Goal! 2: Living the Dream," which comes out later this year, and in "Goal! 3," scheduled for 2007. The fact that "Goal! 4" is not in pre-production will soon, I am sure, be remedied.
Before "Goal!" began, I moaned to a colleague that I was dreading the screening. Any movie named "Goal!" that needs an exclamation mark seems to be protesting too much, and the words "The Dream Begins" suggest that the snores will shortly follow. I see an average of one sports movie a month in which an underdog (or underhorse, or undergymnast) overcomes the odds in order to earn their exclamation mark. I know all about the grizzled coaches, the mean teammates, the dad who doesn't understand and the girl who does.
I was surprised, then, to find myself enjoying the movie almost from the beginning. It had some of the human reality of Gregory Nava's work in movies like "Mi Familia" and the PBS series "American Family." Not the depth or beauty, to be sure, but the feeling for a culture and family ties. And Kuno Becker, a Mexican star of films and TV and three English-language films little released in America, has not only star quality but something more rare, likability. He makes us want his character to succeed.
Where possible, the director Danny Cannon sidesteps some (not all) of the cliches. We suspect Santiago's father may be proud of his son after all, but are unprepared for the way that plays out, and how Santiago's toughness is both the right and wrong choice. We know all about the understanding Irish nurse Roz (Anna Friel), except that she will have insight and understanding. We are relieved, in a way, to be spared an obligatory sex scene. And it is interesting that the boss of the Newcastle United team is not made into your standard Bob Hoskins or Colm Meany role, but is written as a German and cast with a Romanian, Marcel Iures.
"Goal! The Dream Begins" is not a great sports film, and I can easily contain my impatience for "Goal! 2" and "Goal! 3" (which should, but will not, be titled "Goal! 3: The Dreamer Awakes"). But it is good and caring work, with more human detail than we expect. Specifically, it is more about Santiago's life as a young man than it is about who wins the big match. There's a subtext about immigrants in America that is timely right now, and a certain sadness in his father's conviction that some people are intended to be rich and others poor, and that the Munez family should be content and grateful to be poor. Santiago is not content, but he is driven not so much by ambition as by pure and absolute love of soccer, and that gives the movie a purity that shines through.
"Rapido!" As young Santiago (Leonardo Guerra) and his father Hernan (Tony Plana) scramble over the border from Mexico to California, the boy is stunned still when he loses hold of his soccer ball. Hernan stands above him on a rise, holding up the fence they must scrunch under, while the boy half-falls, half-runs down the hill to recover the ball. Border patrollers are approaching and Hernan yells after Santiago, angry that he would risk their safety for the sake of a ball.
Years later, in Goal!: The Dream Begins, Santiago (now grown up to be Mexican tv star Kuno Becker) is working with his father in Los Angeles: Hernan has a small landscaping/gardening business, including a rickety truck to transport his employees, and Santiago is still devoted to soccer. Each day after work, he takes the bus too the field where he and he and other unpaid enthusiasts play pickup and loosely organized matches. When Santiago's informed that he can't play unless he has shin guards -- that he cannot afford -- he pulls scraps of cardboard out of a trashcan, slips them under his socks, and runs onto the field, where he is a star. As his coach tells an admirer, "God taught him."
While his father wants Santiago to join him in the business -- so the truck logo will read "Munez & Son" -- the son resists this future, insisting, much to Hernan's distaste, that he wants to play soccer professionally. They live with Hernan's mother Rose (Miriam Colon) and younger son, both of whom appreciate Santiago's talent more than dad. He's still holding a grudge against the boys' mother, who abandoned them; this mention of backstory allows Hernan to resist all manner of aspiration, and only focus on what is attainable. To be a man, he asserts, means not chasing a "stupid dream," but instead, taking care of one's family, even if it means settling for disagreeable jobs. "It's your life," Santiago says in defiance (though not quite stomping his foot), "Not mine."
The ongoing tension comes to a head when -- as must happen in an inspirational sports drama -- Santiago gets his big chance. This in the form of a former Newcastle United star and scout, Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane), who happens by the field one day. Impressed, he gets on the phone with the United manager, gets a promise for an try-out, and invites Santiago to fly himself to northeastern England. As this is a rather daunting expense, Santiago must go through more arguments with father and some other emotional hardships before at last he arrives on Glen's doorstep.
Lacking a plot, Goal! leans heavily on such predictable hardships to stretch out the time until Santiago's inevitable success. These fall into broad categories. The first would be weather: for his first try-out, Santiago flounders in wind, rain, and mud, not quite impressing United's gruff German coach Erik (Marcel Iures), who peers out from under his hood through downpour and shakes his head. As Santiago engages in more outdoors-athletic activities in England, he becomes acclimated, the seeming point being that he is a dedicated footballer at heart, and only needs to adjust to this cold climate to prove himself thus. (There's another point here, concerning the ways that broadly cultural and political anxieties about illegal immigration are usually assuaged -- or repressed -- by the exploitation of lucrative fútbol luminaries, but this plotline remains unexplored.)
A second, unrelated and equally unexplored concern has to do with health: Santiago hides the fact that he has asthma, an issue that serves no function except to prolong film's running time, save for a brief note about the excellent health care provided to soccer stars and the young, ignorant barrio denizen's lack of knowledge and care. Mostly, this health crisis leads to a couple of tense breathing episodes and a snarky look from a rival.
As this medical deception is easily fixed, the movie reaches for another obstacle, also unconnected to the first two and more hackneyed: Santiago must learn how to grapple with fame and a suddenly changed class status, here posited as the temptations of parties and girls. The bad role model is Gavin (Alessandro Nivola), United's resident and much resented celebrity player, who drinks excessively and does drugs, drives expensive vehicles, sleeps with numerous nubile girls, and habitually arrives late for games and practices.
Though Gavin is predictably mean to the outsider Santiago at first, he soon takes him under his wing, as much to confirm his own legitimacy as a bad boy as to have a partying partner. Santiago is thrilled to be invited "in," and so leaves behind Glen's sage advice and generosity, only to get himself into trouble. Again, a plot extension that seems unnecessary, as does Santiago's predictable romance with the team nurse, Roz (Anna Friel), who is lovely and giving and encouraging, and white. (And who, for some reason, does not pick up on his asthma during his examination.)
Because it's a generic triumphant sports movie, Goal! can't be poking around inside the problems it sets up, for instance, the systemic problems of celebrity, the exploitation of athletes, or the complications of race and nation in a sport, like soccer/football, that is so resolutely international and so wildly popular. As Hernan tells Santiago early on, "There are two types of people in the world, those who live in big houses and those who cut their lawns and wash their cars." For all its frankly thrilling, whomping soccer field action, Goal! can't think beyond this dichotomy.
Goal! The Dream BeginsDirector: Danny Cannon
Cast: Kuno Becker, Stephen Dillane, Anna Friel, Marcel Iures, Sean Pertwee, Alessandro Nivola
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Buena Vista
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2006-05-12