- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

Maybe Americans lack patience. Or maybe in the land of touchdowns, grand slams and 3-pointers, they just like their scoring in bunches. Whatever the reason — and this isn’t anything new — soccer hasn’t caught on this country.

And there’s no reason to think it will. The recent Major League Soccer season ended with but a whimper, its championship eclipsed by the signing of perhaps the sport’s last glimmer of hope in the United States, Freddy Adu. The Women’s World Cup came and went, and no one noticed, especially after the U.S. women exited in the semifinals. Worse for the women, their league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, folded right before the Cup began.

So does this mean women’s soccer had taken a Nitschean turn in the United States? Hard to say. Certainly on a youth level, there have been few problems, and that’s always cause for hope. The WUSA might be back if it can find enough sponsors. And then, of course, there was the movie, a little independent film that could.

Made for a little more than $6million, “Bend It Like Beckham” (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, $19.99) grossed more than $32million last summer, mostly in limited release, and plenty more since it came out recently on DVD. There couldn’t be a better treatise to extol the virtues of women’s soccer.

That’s right; this movie isn’t about David Beckham, the Real Madrid star who’s arguably among the three most recognizable athletes in the world. Beckham does appear in the movie in archival footage and as an uncredited player, but what he mostly lends to the movie (besides his name) is an idea based on the unreal movement of his corner kick: Sometimes the rules of this world are meant to be changed. As the main character, Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra (Parminder Nagra from “ER”) says, “Anybody can cook Aloo Gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”

Bhamra, the youngest daughter of an orthodox Sikh family in London, dreams of playing soccer professionally but knows it’s just that: a dream. As an Indian teenager, Bhamra is expected to follow her family’s traditions, learn to cook and become a good wife. Football (it’s London, after all), well, that’s out of the question.

At least until she’s spotted playing in the park by Juliette “Jules” Paxton (Keira Knightly, already looking like a star even though the movie was filmed two years ago), who invites her to try out for her club team. But playing on the team requires Bhamra to bend the rules as her desires wage war with her family’s beliefs.

In essence, the movie was autobiographical for director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha, who filmed in many of the locations where she grew up and experienced some of the same doubts expressed by Bhamra’s parents. Placing it in the context of soccer was the choice of one of her co-writers, but she dove deep into the research, even attending the Women’s World Cup in the United States in 1999.

Much of the soccer is choreographed; neither Knightly nor Nagra was a skilled player, and Chadha had the actresses work with a professional coach for eight weeks before Nagra could bend the ball with any efficiency. The result, at least from a soccer standpoint, was one of the better movies about the sport (and certainly more realistic than any involving a dog) and one of the better movies released in the United States this year.

And having Beckham’s name attached didn’t hurt, either.

“When we first wrote the film it was 1998, and Beckham had just disgraced himself in the World Cup with the red card,” Chadha says in the film’s commentary track, which comes across as more anecdotal than technical. “Everyone hated him, and he wasn’t at all flavor of the month. It was at that time we got permission from him to use his name in our film. Of course, fast forward a few years and ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ is released, and he is the hero of the nation. It was very good timing for us with the release of the film.”

Among the other extras on the disc are a making-of documentary, trailers and 10 deleted scenes. There’s also a music video, which is of note only because Beckham painfully tries to shy away from the camera as he sings “Hot, Hot, Hot” with his wife. But maybe the best of the extras involves Chadha making the aforementioned Aloo Gobi, a traditional cauliflower and potatoes dish. Chadha’s mother and aunt watch and criticize her culinary skills, making it all too apparent what drove Chadha to make the movie.

“History of Soccer: The Beautiful Game”

The title of this 7-disc, 13-part documentary (Sony Music Entertainment, $84.99) sounds pretentious. Even the first person interviewed in the initial segment about the origins of football, Real Madrid’s Hugo Sanchez, sounds a bit snooty.

“[The person who invented football] will always be a part of history along with the greatest geniuses that ever existed,” Sanchez says. “Those who discovered penicillin, the telephone, television and gravity are the greatest geniuses in the world, but whoever invented football should be worshipped as a god.”

OK, so it’s pretty clear this documentary, narrated by Terence Stamp, isn’t for the casual fan. Only a true soccer lover will make it through the whole film, which logs in at about 16 hours with all the bonus footage added in. Still, those that do will find it worth the effort.

Topics for the segments, which clock in at around 50 minutes each, range from the evolution of the game in Europe to the super teams of South America. There also are parts on Brazil, France and Africa, as well as section that deals with the future of the game. For fans of the American game, there’s really only one segment of interest, delving into the way the sport translates into different cultures around the world. It looks specifically at the 1998 World Cup match between the United States and Iran and how soccer can alter relations between countries.

Plenty of historians from around the world are interviewed (yes, there are subtitles), and they seem happy to relay gruesome details like the sacrifices of losing team captains or myths of human heads being used as balls. Still there are extended interviews here with some of the sport’s greats, including Pele and Maradona. And as bonuses, the discs boast the first moving footage of soccer, plus footage of every goal from every World Cup final.

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