THE BLOG
05/06/2007 05:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can Football (Soccer) Change the World?

The Power Of The Game Pathe Pictures and Reason Pictures.

Sports features heavily this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, with 14 premier screenings of sports-related narrative and documentary films and a partnership with ESPN.

It was strange to be in this nation of sports lovers during the 2006 FIFA World Cup, an Englishman in New York as they say, where football, or soccer ('to-may-to'/to-mah-to) fever never really arrived. Still, in what some would say was an attempt to ameliorate the sense of embarrassment at America's isolation in the world, it was possible to experience a little of the hulla-balloo of this big competition in cafes and bars with screens showing games - and supporters cheering and booing enthusiastically in various US cities.

Michael Apted, the groundbreaking film maker who created such watersheds as the 7 Up documentary series for British television exploring issues of class and aspiration (which recently featured the group at 49 years of age) as well as being an accomplished feature film director (most recently with Amazing Grace) is director of The Power of the Game. A master of the craft, Apted draws us in to the fanfare of the 2006 World Cup, underscored by a quote from Liverpool Football Club's legendary manager from 1959-74, Bill Shanky who said 'Football's not a matter of life and death. It's more important than that.'

Apted's brilliance is illustrated in his ability to intertwine six stories from different countries and contextualise it all in to the story of how football can do good in the world. The narrative takes us on a visually tantalising and emotionally turbulent journey via South Africa, Iran, Argentina, the United States, England and Pakistan (as a 'single' segment) and Senegal. These journeys all have Germany in their sights, where 32 nations take part in a bid to see who will carry home the much coveted World Cup.

Starting in South Africa, which has been selected to host the 2010 World Cup, Apted explores the difficulties of nations competing in an unequal playing field. In fact, as Essop Pahad tells us in the introduction over pictures of Soweto and kids playing in the dust and dirt, under Apartheid many of the people in the South Africa never had playing fields, yet still had a love and passion for the game.

We are definitely smitten with this beautifully constructed reflection on the world through the lens that demonstrates how to tackle a popular subject with important themes at the same time. It's strength as a film, however, it seems to me, is also part of its weakness when it attempts to straddle an observational account of what is happening with an endorsement of the idea that the way to create social change is through sport.

Each story segment is separately titled. So, South Africa is presented as 'the struggle to overcome the legacy of Apartheid', the US 'the struggle to overcome indifference' (to the game, although an extended metaphor is clear here), Iran is billed as 'the struggle to overcome oppression' and features female sports journalist Mahin Gorji, while the Argentinian story is concerned with 'overcoming poverty and its destructive effects'. The joint English and Pakistani story (featuring Zeshan Rehman, the first footballer from Asia to play in the UK Premier League) concerns itself with 'racial integration and racism', while 'the struggle to establish a new model to overcome the football slave trade' is the story from Senegal. Phew.

While it is mildly humorous to watch the USA coach Bruce Arena lament the lack of support for soccer in the US and talk as though America were some poor little nation struggling, the challenges facing women in Iran jerk us in to an entirely different space. In Buenos Aires, Moreno is a slum area that former professional footballer Fabian Ferraro has created a street football team in called Defensores de Chaco . This is a visceral reminder of how so many people live across the world. To their credit, they have cleared a garbage dump and turned it in to their home ground, established a football academy and arts center and brought clean water, gas and some paved streets to Moreno. While this is impressive, it also begs the bigger question about what has happened to the idea that we can collectively change society, even the world, for the better. Once upon a time as they say, not so long ago, the idea that everyone in the world should have clean running water, electricity, decent housing, jobs and lifestyle was seen as just a basic demand for society. These days, in the age of lowering horizons and expectations, we seem to accept the idea that small scale initiatives are the best we can hope for. This leaves vast swathes of humanity aside and is, well simply put, just not good enough.

So, should those that do good projects be held accountable for the lack of imagination and vision of the rest of the society? Certainly not. However, when football (or sport generally) becomes the vehicle for discussing or attempting social change, it is an unfair call in every way. Unfair, because great sport should be about sport. Like great art. Which may of course deal with the issues of the world - however when it becomes a pulpit to lecture, generally immediately loses its value.

Nowhere does this seem more true than in the segment on England and Pakistan. British football these days has become about etiquette and behaviour monitoring in the stands it seems. The film features 'Kick it Out' representatives whose aim is to ensure there are no racial slurs from the terraces. I have never been convinced that banning people from saying things changes their opinion. Perhaps worse though, encouraging the police to arrest people for saying things seems to be a cure that is worse than the ailment. Better to have the arguments out in public and win the debate than stuff it under the carpet, if indeed it really is still such a problem.
Some have argued that it is more about regulating behaviour even further in an age where we are fearful of any spontaneous acts. Others have pointed out that the assertion that white working class people who go to football are racist and violent really represents a pernicious view of ordinary people - and can even help create the problems we have seen in Rome recently.

There is absolutely no doubt that Apted, alongside his talented team including Director of Photography Maryse Alberti (When We Were Kings, Happiness) have made a brilliant film that evokes the joy and pain of a game that means a tremendous amount to millions of people around the world. A hugely ambitious project, The Power of the Game is an example of a different kind of team, a film team, whose effort places itself ahead of most of the others in a competitive and tough world where passion and hard work are employed in equal measure to achieve the goal. Many will deplore the idea that football is just a game, beautiful at times, infuriating and depressing at others, but still, in the end, a game nevertheless.

Apted's skill and precision is in being able to illustrate so many different stories and experiences and creating a chronicle for our times of this worldwide phenomenon. Unintentionally perhaps too though, it paints the picture of a world that has turned its back on large scale transformations of the big issues of poverty and development through politics and the participation of citizens in broader change. Unfortunately, this lets politicians off the hook who can hide behind sports initiatives as excuses for coming up with solutions themselves and makes us all somewhat more passive - while the beautiful game is used for instrumental purposes.
For more HuffPost coverage of the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, go here.