30 for 30: Soccer Stories, A Look Back and Ahead

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ESPN’s fantastic 30 for 30 film series took an adventurous step last January announcing a set of films that will focus solely on soccer stories ahead of the World Cup coming in June (which will also be broadcast on ESPN). The move took gumption on the part of the media giant as the United States has little soccer history outside of the past 20 years meaning the films center around events in foreign countries and majority of them requiring subtitles for speech.

Those aspects could drive away an audience but soccer fans rejoiced at the news and the momentum that the 30 for 30 series built up, suggested those with no knowledge of the events or passion for the sport could still be sucked in.

A group of seven films are in the process of being shown that wrap up on May 6. The eighth, a profile of Argentina star Ossie Ardilles amidst the Falkland Islands war in 1982, is being held until July 2 and airs between the Round of 16 and quarterfinals of the World Cup.

The film series started with one of the darkest days in soccer of the last quarter century, 96 people dying on a Saturday afternoon at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium, Hillsborough. A lack of police control, poor planning and too few turnstiles leading into standing-only pens were key factors leading to big crush of Liverpool fans before the Reds match against Nottingham Forrest in the semifinals of the FA Cup. Corruption and lying blamed Liverpool supporters for breaking into the stadium and starting the events leading to those deaths.

Hillsborough tells the tale of two tragedies; the deaths of 96 soccer fans in April of 1989 and the constant struggle for justice by the survivors and the families of the victims. The film is an oral history of that day in 1989 and consequences that ensued for the following 20-plus years. Two facts shouldn’t be forgotten when watching; the film was released on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy and it wasn’t allowed to be shown in Liverpool where there is another coroner’s investigation going on. It has been a long, arduous road to recovery and it hasn’t finished yet.

There is very little chance to pause and gather your emotions when watching Hillsborough but that is an important way the story is told. The fight for justice has been never-ending for the families of the victims. Their interviews along with game day footage, security camera video and news reports lead viewers through the initial thoughts of dread before the match, the utter panic once the stadium pens were filled over capacity and the heartbreak that ensued.

Director Daniel Gordon moves the story along without a narrator, using only text to transition between phases of that day and investigations that followed. It is an important tactic when making this film as emotions run deep with this tragedy. Liverpool fans were falsely accused of being drunk and disorderly before the match and were blamed for causing the tragedy. British tabloid The Sun falsely charged Liverpool supporters of pickpocketing victims and urinating on police who were trying to help. It’s an accusation that followed those that attended that day for 20-plus years. The appearance of narrator may have suggested bias or telling the story in a certain way. Without a narrator and leaning on just facts in text and first-hand accounts of what happened, it erases any perception of not being objective.

The same can be said for using interviews of fans that attended that day, families of victims, South Yorkshire police who were on patrol that day and professor/author Phil Scraton, whose investigative work was key in discovering the alteration of statements and cover-up of facts.

Hillsborough is powerful in every sense of the word showing the emotional toll suffered that day and the constant struggle of those who fought to uncover the truth and clear the names of those that died in April of 1989. It is a must watch for any sports fan, especially those that follow soccer. The film is in my top five of the 30 for 30 series.

Last night ESPN aired two 30 minute films back-to-back, Maradona ’86 recounting Diego Maradona’s amazing and controversial World Cup campaign followed by The Opposition, how political torture occurred in Chile during the country’s successful bid to win a place in the 1974 World Cup.

It was an interesting dichotomy as the first 30 minutes dealt with a story ending in pure joy for Maradona and his countrymen in Mexico as they defeated West Germany while the final 30 told of Chile’s national stadium being used as a detainment camp for torture as General Pinochet was in power and rounding up anyone the government felt was a threat to power. The stories occurred to neighboring countries only 12 years apart but tones could not have been any different.

Maradona ’86 is straight forward in the telling of the events of Argentina’s 1986 World Cup campaign but the true color of the film is the emotion of the country’s supporters. Bordering at times as almost a passion play with Maradona being seen as soccer Jesus, the antagonist of the story isn’t England, West Germany or the style of play the opponents use, it is the pressure Maradona is under and what his reputation could be if he fails.

While that sounds ludicrous, it’s how the sport is viewed by a rabid fan base. That feeling and the Argentina television highlights of the matches are where the film shines. When Maradona scores the “Hand of God” goal against rival England has two Argentina commentators disagreeing about if Maradona uses his hand (And he does) is a true highlight. But the calls of that game show the fervor of the country and the burden the diminutive attacking midfielder had to carry.

The trials and tribulations of Maradona’s life could be a TV mini-series so the 30 minute film seems to end abruptly but the film achieves its goal of showcasing one of the greatest players of all time standing on top of the world soccer mountain.

Where Maradona ’86 shows the ecstasy sports can bring, The Opposition shines a light on the Chilean national soccer team getting tied to a dictatorship using its home stadium for ugly torture.

The Opposition uses fresh interviews with former players and political prisoners to paint a heartbreaking picture of Chile being upheaval as United States-backed General Pinochet led a coup to take over control of the government and ruled it with an iron fist. Citizens deemed to be anti-Pinochet were rounded up, held prisoner and tortured at the National Stadium, the same place where a young, developing Chile team was trying to qualify for the World Cup.

It’s a scary thought, the premise of using a building like the National Stadium and adjoining complex as an internment camp, a venue that brings joy to hundreds of thousands of citizens. The testimonies of those arrested and a couple of players on the national team keep the film pace moving forward and paying respect to those that suffered.

The film is an example of where the 30 for 30 series really excels. The Opposition conveys the environment of fear, pain and uncertainty of the times with only English text for narration and translation. It is a gem for the series that should not be missed.

The series shifts to four films over the next two weeks with profiles of success, failure, history and tragedy. The Myth of Garrincha looks back at the career of one of the best ever, Mane Garrincha, who overcame birth defects to be an integral teammate of Pele and dominant Brazil teams. Hollywood director Brett Ratner brings Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy to television, chronicling a Nazi plan to steal the World Cup trophy during World War II. A sad tale, Barbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry will show how one mistake in a World Cup final haunted a goalkeeper for the rest of his life.

The one I’m looking forward to the most is Ceasefire Massacre. It will profile events in June of 1994. As the Republic of Ireland team is in the process of a pool play upset of Italy at Giants Stadium in the World Cup, terrorists opened fired at a Northern Ireland bar thought to be frequented by Catholics. Six died, five were wounded in the attack and the aftermath continued as justice eluded the victims’ families.  I am biased considering my Irish roots but the political/religious background to the events coupled with Ireland’s success at the 1994 World Cup sets the stage for what could be another very moving film.

The only drawback to the series occurred last night and is set to happen again. Thirty minutes was a good length for Maradona ’86 considering the bulk of the action took place over a month. However half an hour for The Opposition left me wanting more about the players trying to go forward as well as the Chilean people. While it covers all of the bases, the film could have been more through. Some of that feeling speaks to how great the 30 for 30 series has been as a whole.

30 for 30: Soccer Stories is off to a great start showing the fanaticism that soccer can bring and the effect it has on societies.

Find me on Twitter: @TheIrishFish

Find 30 for 30 on Twitter: @30for30

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One response to “30 for 30: Soccer Stories, A Look Back and Ahead”

  1. katemurphy1 says :

    Reblogged this on Soccer Players in the Pros and commented:
    ESPN making efforts to feature some of soccer’s greatest stories.

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