From Corruption, With Love. Celebrating the start of the World Cup with a review of United Passions (2015)

With the World Cup kicking off in Russia today, what better time to review that great footballing drama “United Passions”? Inspired by actual events but mendaciously crafted to launder the true story and, quite probably, create an opportunistic “The Producers”-style tax write off, “United Passions” is such a bald-faced work of propaganda that you almost want to honour it for its audacity alone. Almost.

The film starts in 1904 when, like the orphan Oliver asking for more, a group of European Football Federations went to the English Football Association for support for their nascent idea of a central governing body and came away with sweet FA. Affronted by the moustache-twirling dismissiveness of the English overlords of the beautiful game, FIFA is established in a Eurofrenzy of anti-English sentiment with clunkily scripted racism and a cosy ‘jobs for the boys’ handing out of plum leadership positions. For 20 years, FIFA fails to make any serious inroads until, that is, Jules Rimet mocks the 1924 Olympic football champions Uruguay. And the rest, as they say, is hagiography.

Throughout the film, the historical events are framed by a casual game of modern day street football which, as the story progresses, gradually draws an appreciative crowd no doubt to convey the sport’s grassroots universal appeal. It opens with a token girl player, placed in goal, then proceeds to show her as conspicuously untalented in that position. It’s typical of a film which continually makes feeble gestures towards inclusivity and equality yet in showing FIFA’s true history emphasises how disinterested the organisation was in either of those principles. It may have been forged in the heat of the frustration of the English FA’s arrogant old boys club but that ardour quickly cooled into cynical self-interest and outright racketeering.

Jules Rimet (Gerard Depardieu), portrayed as a wise and worldly sage, foresees the gathering storm clouds of the Second World War from the depths of the Great Depression (FIFA’s own bankruptcy is only mentioned in passing). As FIFA’s President, he sits in lofty judgement over European politics and accuses the Olympics of being a venal propaganda tool, without any hint of irony especially as the film is quite brazen about how money influenced the choice of the first World Cup host.

Of course, throughout everything, it’s always portrayed as the struggle of the noble, plucky Europeans against the horrifically racist, sexist and Imperialist English at every turn. No = intended to whitewash actual events. When, post-war, the English finally join FIFA, the organisation proves itself to be as graceless in victory as it was in competition.

Away from the story, the film itself is poorly scripted, awkwardly performed and ineptly edited, managing to rob the sporting events of any sense of drama or excitement, especially when the joins between archive footage and the film is so obvious. In its rush to show FIFA’s growing diversity, no national stereotype is left on the bench, emphasising the organisation’s Eurocentric worldview (despite its deep debt of honour to the South American nations who bankrolled many of the early World Cups).

It’s once the movie introduces Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter (Tim Roth) however, that it goes into ironic overdrive, pivoting to focus on Blatter not only as the white knight of FIFA, but as the crusader against corruption and the saviour of Africa. Introduced to the organisation by then President João Havelange (Sam Neill), Blatter is tasked with finding new sources of funding and revenue for FIFA, bringing aboard sponsors and strategic partners and, if the film is to be believed, rescuing Adidas from commercial oblivion too. It’s good to be the king or, more appropriately, the man cutting the cheques to pay for a movie about your own life. Neill always looks like he wishes he was anywhere else and can’t wait for his scene to be over but Roth looks miserable. He may have been the villain of “The Incredible Hulk” but make no mistake, his Sepp Blatter is the real Abomination.

There’s such deep absurdity in the idea of a bunch of talented and respective actors phoning in performances and gladly pocketing the pay cheque portraying men who were just in it for the money, in a film paid for so that those same men can attempt to cleanse their image and continue to rake in the cash it creates a self-referential, metatextual fourth wall singularity so dense even Deadpool would struggle to escape its pull.

As the film limps to its triumphant, self-congratulatory conclusion which peddles the idea Blatter ‘personally’ delivered the World Cup to the continent of Africa in 2010 (and thereby gifted the world the vuvuzela), it certainly brings a lump to the throat as you gag on the movie’s lack of self-awareness.

It almost qualifies as ‘so bad its good’ until you remember that this was made and released just as the true scale of corruption at the heart of FIFA was revealed and was a calculated attempt to retrospectively rewrite football history on a breath-taking scale.