Is there anything worse than the corporate video? You know the kind of thing, a promotional film produced by, say, an oil conglomerate to make out they care about the environment and aren’t just a bunch of profiteering bastards. But it takes a special kind of arrogance to give such a vanity project a full theatrical release, so hats off to world football’s governing body, FIFA, which attempted to offset its reputation for corruption and scandal with this absurd 2015 movie.
Before we get on to how rubbish the film is let’s consider the rubbish timing. United Passions hit US cinemas the same month the Feds launched an investigation into corruption, fraud and other administrative skulduggery at FIFA, which culminated in a raid on FIFA’s headquarters and the arrest of several officials. Not that the publicity did much to improve box office receipts. The movie took a measly $918 in its opening weekend, suggesting that fewer than 100 people in the whole of the US were bored enough or curious enough to go and see it. The venture is estimated to have left FIFA out of pocket to the tune of about $30 million, which is roughly what they make in kickbacks in a week (probably, allegedly).
United Passions tells the story of the globalisation of football in the 20th century through the eyes of three generations of FIFA president: Jules Rimet, João Havelange and Sepp Blatter, played respectively by Gérard Depardieu, Sam Neill and Tim Roth, all proper actors who really should’ve known better. The casting of Roth as the toad-like Blatter is particularly galling, akin to Robert de Niro playing Sir Phillip Green in ‘BHS: The Movie’. But these are our heroes: not the great football players or managers or fans, but the pen-pushing bureaucrats. In fact, there’s hardly any football in this movie at all, the game itself relegated to a sideshow to the main event of striking sponsorship deals and negotiating World Cups with regimes with questionable human rights records.
The film begins at the turn of the century with the game still run by the dastardly English. “What do those blasted frogs know about the beautiful game?” some old Etonian from the FA asks early on in a scene reminiscent of a Mitchell & Webb sketch. We then rattle through the decades at a rapid pace: it’s the kind of film where a newspaper seller will pop up to shout “Mussolini on the rise in Italy!” so the audience is aware we’ve arrived in the 1920s.
Indeed, the movie is full of random people popping up to make salient points. When Rimet (played by Depardieu channeling René from ‘allo, allo!’), first suggests the idea of a world football championship someone stands up and asks, “is he a madman or a visionary?’ Then sits down again. Rimet then gives a man from Uruguay permission to host the very first World Cup after he promises FIFA “unlimited funds” to do so. It’s a bold, visionary choice for the first tournament. As bold and as visionary, perhaps, as selling the World Cup to a tiny Islamist desert state a century later.
What with those pesky investigations going on in real life, you’d think FIFA would steer clear of how it deals with the murky business of selecting World Cup hosts, but, incredibly, it’s a central theme. Later in the film, Havelange ponders on the ethics of awarding the 1978 World Cup to the brutal military junta in Argentina. “The intellectuals can protest about human rights violations,” he declares. “But whether they’re communists or fascists, they only dream of one thing: football,” – adding as a punchline: “We do more for world peace than the UN.”
It’s about this point when we finally meet Blatter, kitted out in flares and wide-lapelled shirts to signal we’re in the 1970s. He’s appointed Havelange’s successor on the basis that he’s “good at finding money” and is immediately seen to be hustling deals with the likes of Coca-Cola and Adidas. “I don’t know where the money’s gone!” he says in a later scene with FIFA at risk of financial collapse. You want someone to pop up at this point to ask Sepp what happened to all the Coca-Cola and Adidas loot, but for once they don’t. Our hero then gets to work on getting the house in order, single-handedly ridding FIFA of corruption and implementing a zero-tolerance approach to improper conduct. “The slightest breach of ethics will be severely punished,” he tells his charges. This is the same Sepp Blatter that FIFA itself recently banned from having anything to do with football for eight years, by the way.
And that’s about it. There’s a storyline about bringing the World Cup to Africa, which is achieved with the award of the 2010 tournament to South Africa (because FIFA care about coloured people too!), plus the conclusion of a recurring scene about a young girl in some dusty corner of the world who wants to play football with the boys (spoiler: she gets a game, she’s really good, and the boys carry her off into the sunset because football is all inclusive and that).
As an endnote, it was quite an effort to track down this film. I couldn’t get it on DVD or Netflix or anywhere else and resorted to downloading illegally (sue me FIFA!). I’m sure many involved in this movie want it whitewashed from history, but as an example of a bad idea, badly executed, it hits the back of the net.