The History of Soccer: The
Beautiful Game is certainly outstanding in terms of the material that it
pulls together: rare footage from the earliest days of the sport, clips from
countless important championship and World Cup events, and interviews with many
major players from around the world. When the special features are taken into
account, The History of Soccer becomes even more comprehensive: for
instance, it includes footage of every single goal from every World Cup final
ever played. For die-hard soccer fans, that alone may make The History of
Soccer a hit.
But a wealth of material alone
doesn't make an outstanding documentary. How does The History of Soccer
(or, as it's originally titled, The History of Football) stand up as a
film, apart from its value to fans as a compilation of great soccer footage? In
a way, it's a tough question, but in the end I found The History of Soccer
to fall short of the high mark it seems to have been aiming for. It's still a
worthwhile documentary, but not an exceptional one apart from its sheer
quantity of material.
The documentary is divided into
seven episodes, each 50 minutes long: "Origins," "Football
Cultures," "Evolution of the European Game," "European
Superpowers," "Brazil," "South American Superpowers,"
"For Club and Country," "The Dark Side,"
"Superstars," "The Media," "Africa," "A Game
for All," and "Futures." Each episode, narrated by Terence
Stamp, interweaves footage from actual historic matches with numerous
interviews with players, coaches, journalists, and historians.
The History of Soccer is
tightly focused in terms of its topic, but its organization is far more
problematic when it comes to actually presenting and unfolding that topic.
Given the documentary's title, I expected a chronological treatment of the
sport, starting from its earliest days and following its development to the
present day; the fact that the first episode is titled "Origins"
would seem to support that structure. However, that's not really the case... or
rather, that's not the case for the documentary as a whole. The episodes that
trace the history of the game in a particular region (like "European
Superpowers" or "South American Superpowers") do so without
reference to an overall timeline of the sport; the result is that from episode
to episode, we are jerked around in time, with little overall sense of the
timeline. This makes it very difficult to build up a coherent picture of how
the sport developed.
But if The History of Soccer
doesn't follow an effective chronological structure, neither does it commit to
a focused subject-based organization. The more-or-less historical episodes are
interspersed with topic-based episodes like "Football Cultures" and
"The Dark Side." Yet these episodes also seem unfocused, leaving
viewers on their own to pick out the important ideas from the irrelevant side
anecdotes. To be sure, some of the episodes are more focused than others:
"For Club and Country," for instance, does try to stick to its
discussion of the conflict between league play and national teams, which is
quite an interesting topic. Even here, though, the episode has trouble staying
on topic; midway through, there's a section on the English club teams that
really doesn't contribute anything to the overall point of the episode.
This lack of adherence to
either a chronological or a subject-based structure is, I think, just a sign of
the general lack of coherence of the overall documentary. I suspect that the
filmmakers fell so much in love with their material that they simply immersed
themselves in it; the result is a program that is dazzled by its own wealth of
From this point of view, the
question of audience is easily answered: this is a documentary for soccer fans,
not the general public. Each program is chock-full of references to particular
players, teams, coaches, and games; considering that the program does not stick
to a chronological structure, it creates a bewildering amount of detail for any
viewer who's not familiar with the major organizations, players, and tournaments
of the soccer world. The History of Soccer: The Beautiful Game is
certainly a monumental achievement in terms of the material that it has
assembled; it's also a polished and solidly crafted documentary in all aspects
except its problematic structure. But since it doesn't pull together its
material into a larger, coherent picture, it's not particularly accessible to
viewers who aren't familiar with the soccer scene already.
The History of Soccer is
presented in a widescreen anamorphic transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio), and looks
very good overall. The documentary uses a mix of archival material and new
footage, mostly of interviews. The new footage looks quite good; we get some
edge enhancement, but on the whole it is clean and clear.
The archival footage of soccer
matches is extensive, starting at the beginning of the 20th century (or a bit
earlier in some cases), and continuing all the way to the present day. This
material is not surprisingly in worse condition than the material that was
filmed specifically for the documentary; the oldest film segments are clearly
worn, and even the more modern footage is generally fairly blurry. Some of this
is due to the source material not being of the highest quality, and some can be
attributed to the fact that the television footage (most likely originally in
the 1.33:1 aspect ratio) has been zoomed in and cropped to adjust it to the
widescreen aspect ratio of the documentary. All in all, the older material
looks reasonable, and as a whole The History of Soccer is quite
satisfactory in terms of image quality.
Probably because it is expected
to have broad international appeal, all of the subtitles in the program are
player-generated. In a touch of very good sense, some of the more
heavily-accented English speakers are given subtitles as well, which I found to
be very useful.
The first menu screen that
comes up (after the production splash screens) gives viewers a choice between
the English and Spanish soundtracks, both of which are Dolby 5.1. The sound is
of good quality, with a clear, crisp sound to Terence Stamp's narration as well
as the interviewees' voices.
The special features for The
History of Soccer are divided across all seven discs. Rather
inconveniently, they're also separated according to the individual episode,
with each set of special features accessed through the menu for that particular
The bonus material consists, on
the whole, of collections of short clips and interviews, with a few short
featurettes as well. Segments from all of the World Cup finals are included
here, along with clips from the finals of other competitions. Each of these
segments is introduced by a text screen giving some background information on
that match; the segment itself is generally around three to five minutes long,
and consists of a combination of actual footage from the game and interview
clips from players or other people discussing what happened there. The
interview footage is clearly made up of material that didn't make it into the film
as a whole; these segments are often fairly substantial, with different topics
being discussed by each interviewee. Each of the episodes also has a
"biographies" section that has text information on the major people
mentioned in that episode.
This the detailed breakdown of the extras:
"Origins" (Disc 1):
Hall on Football's Unlikely Origins (very short interview clip)
Is an Old Italian Custom" (3-minute newsreel)
Old Ashbourne Folk Game" (3-minute newsreel)
football match archive: clips from eleven games from 1897-1912.
"Football Cultures" (Disc 1):
Rise and Fall of the NASL" (short featurette)
list of all the NASL finals.
"Evolution of the European Game" (Disc 2)
Cup finals: 1934, 1938, 1954
with Pepi Bican
"European Superpowers" (Disc 2):
Cup finals: 1966, 1974, 1982, 1990
with Sir Bobby Charlton, Jürgen Klinsmann, Paolo Rossi
"Brazil" (Disc 3):
Cup finals: 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994
"South American Superpowers" (Disc 3)
- World Cup
finals: 1930, 1950, 1978, 1986
with César Luis Menotti
"For Club and Country" (Disc 4)"
Championship finals: 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976
"The Dark Side" (Disc 4):
on the Terraces (featurette)
"Superstars" (Disc 5):
with Pelé, Ronaldo, George Best, Dino Zoff, Paolo Rossi, Jürgen Klinsmann,
and Diego Maradona.
"The Media" (Disc 5):
Cup final: 1998
with Pelé, Paolo Rossi, Alan Shearer, Zico, Kenny Dalglish
"Africa" (Disc 6):
from the African Cup of Nations, 1957-2000
"A Game for All" (Disc 6):
from the World Club Championships, 1960-1970
"Futures" (Disc 7):
from the Asian Cup: 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1992, 2000
with Kazu Miura.
The History of Soccer: The
Beautiful Game is sure to appeal greatly to soccer fans, with its splendid
assortment of footage from numerous important games throughout the 20th
century. As a documentary, it's not as effective or as gripping as it could be,
though; the combination of a flood of details with a problematic overall
structure makes for a film that doesn't really bring the "big
picture" to life as well as it could. The History of Soccer is
recommended, but definitely for soccer fans only.