It is predicted that more Americans will be watching this year’s World Cup than ever before… proving once and for all that baseball really has hit rock-bottom. To commemorate, we shall honor one of the greatest soccer movies ever made—Victory (also called Escape to Victory)—and explain why it can help Americans join the rest of the world in understanding the importance of The World Cup and what it means to be playing in South Africa.
Cinema that can help Americans understand that whole World Cup thing…
Victory is one of those movies you catch by accident. It’s something you stumble upon on a lazy Sunday, flipping through the channels when, all of a sudden, you maybe see Sylvester Stallone in a way you’ve never seen him before. He’s standing in front of a net in knee-high socks and a long-sleeve shirt. He kind of looks like…wait a minute—he is! He’s a soccer player… playing goalie for a team… and playing worse than he talks!
It’s one of those scenes you have no choice but to keep watching, just to see where it’s going—like a German porn video, or Andy Dick anytime he’s in front of a camera. Where Rocky in hot-pants is doing is a movie about Allied POWs forced to play a propaganda-themed soccer match against the German national team in the thick of WWII. Stallone plays interned Captain Robert Hatch, alongside Michael Caine as Captain John Colby, and living soccer-legend Pele as Corporal Luis Fernandez.
Besides Pele giving acting a shot, Victory is famous for its heretofore unparalleled ground-level photography of soccer in motion. Nearly 30 years before Clint Eastwood would halfway struggle explaining rugby to casual American sports fans with Invictus, Victory brought the beautiful game to cinema in a well-choreographed way (Pele himself drew up most of the plays, check it) and tethered it with just enough Nazi overtones and Caine’s excruciating accent to cut a cult-masterpiece.
Near the end, the POWs have a chance to escape at halftime of the big game through an underground tunnel, Hogan’s Heroes-style, but they decide to stay and play it out for the greater moral glory of them all. And wouldn’t you know it? They manage a last-second draw, and in the ensuing pandemonium, they end up escaping amongst the crowd, anyways. Two birds, one Stallone.
The really shitty part…
The story, of course, is based on a team of Ukrainian players who played several games against German soldiers while Ukraine was occupied during WWII. After winning all of these games, the Ukrainians were honorably taken away by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps… where most of them died. For some reason, they never thought of digging a tunnel, or asking the nearest Brazilian POW to join the team.
Despite never being mentioned alongside Bull Durham, Hoosiers, or Rounders in the discussion of the all-time great sports movies, the climax of Victory is ludicrously implausible enough to strike one of those jocular, ‘fuck yeah!’ nerves. It hits you the same way Rocky IV does when Rocky KTFO’s Drago and converts the entire USSR to democracy in one glorious Christmas night. In a way, it’s the perfect 80s movie—Nazis, Stallone, token black guy…maybe the perfect movie, period?
Where we’re going with all of this….
So what does Victory have to do with the World Cup? Easy—part of the allure of the tournament is the aspect of countries who were former colonies facing off against their industrial-eyed former colonizers. It’s a case of the historical oppressors versus the historically oppressed—a variation of one of the underlying themes of Victory. None of the sides are in shackles, or implicitly ordering the other side to lose at gunpoint, but the resentment lingers. Hell, we’ve already played our old friends England to a 1-1 draw.
Technically, they stopped being our overseas oppressors about 300 years ago… and since then we’ve made notable cultural, economic, and dental advances they might envy. But, they do still hold two things over our heads. One of them is soccer. The other is Richard Branson—who alone trumps Microsoft, Taco Bell, Christina Hendricks, the McRib, and Streetfighters I & II. If that doesn’t make you want to either punch a limey bastard or have sex with Richard Branson, don’t bother calling yourself a patriot.
In South Africa, we Americans fit both sides of the Victory analogy—POWs and Nazis. In between whistles, we are the all-powerful capitalist wardens of the yard. We occupy every corner of Earth and every layer of hell with our relentlessly-fattening foods and increasingly ironic celebrity sex-tapes. On the pitch, we usually morph into the hapless, underdog POWs.
When we win against a nation that no longer counts witchcraft as one of its primary social scourges, it’s a celebration. Our presence is encapsulated, in a weird way, by Victory, thereby making it the third greatest 80s legacy, trailing only arcades & The Iron Sheik.
If internet gossip is to be trusted, that British guy who looks like he snorts broken glass is planning on producing a Victory remake. Good idea, or bad idea?