I've seen Goal! The Dream Begins twice now, and I'm still hesitant in my approach to this review. I'll admit, during my first viewing, my initial instinct as a hardcore soccer fan was to brush the movie off as a gratuitous (not to mention formulaic) sports drama -- and with that title, who could blame me? The fact that Goal! is actually the first part in a trilogy didn't help -- marketing ploy, I thought darkly. The second time around, I was determined to cast a more impartial eye on the film, and the effort earned me a pleasant surprise. Goal! is a highly enjoyable movie, as long as you don't overthink the details.
Santiago Munez (played competently, if not with complete conviction, by Kuno Becker) is an illegal alien who lives in Los Angeles. He works long hours and plays local league soccer in his free time. One day, he is spotted by Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane), a vacationing ex-scout, who is inspired by something in Santiago's playing and decides that he could be the next big thing. Santi's grandmother and brother are excited for him, but his father has different ideas and values; his idea of moving up in the world is not to harbor wild dreams but to work hard and support his family. Santiago leaves for England without his blessing, and this lack of closure is a major source of angst for Santi for most of the film.
His destination is Newcastle United, which is generally considered one of the bigger clubs in the English Premier League. Needless to say, the manager isn't thrilled with the prospect of giving an unknown street kid from halfway around the world a run out, and it shows when he pretty much ignores Santi's initial trial. But, like most sports movies, the plot follows a pattern of obstacles that are introduced and then systematically overcome, so its no surprise that Santiago gets past this hurdle, thanks to Glen's determination and a reasonable show of faith from the manager.
Somewhere along the trajectory of the film, I developed an admiration for all the soccer moms (and their progeny) in the audience, who probably dont know much about the soccer world beyond AYSO. They could sit back and enjoy the movie without scrutinizing the little things that would normally drive a soccer fanatic crazy. For example, it is established early on that Newcastle had to win all three of their remaining games to qualify for next season's European competition. However, Santi somehow manages to train for two weeks, feature in three reserves matches, and play two regular team matches in the space of about a month (matches are usually played once a week). I'm not a killjoy, I swear. My point is, this is why suspension of disbelief was invented -- to help OCD filmgoers cope with slight lapses in continuity.
Where the film succeeds is its ability to draw the viewers into the off-pitch reality of soccer. Although Santiago's near-meteoric rise to the Newcastle starting lineup is the stuff of Disney films, the extra elements to his story embellish the main plot and make up for the overall cheesiness. The training sequence is well executed, the fan montages look terrific (especially on a big screen), and the way the characters cope with the decadence that comes with fame is both thorough and pragmatic. My favorite detail, however, is when Santiago finds out that his young teammate has just suffered a career-ending injury. It is a sobering discovery, and the film doesn't dwell on it, but the scene illustrates that Santiago is one of the lucky ones, that soccer careers don't always end in glory; there are too many players who never make it at all. Its obvious that Mike Jeffries and Adrian Butchart -- who co-wrote the screenplay -- know their subject well, and their love for soccer is uplifting.
The minutiae not only give the film a bit of color; they add authenticity to what would otherwise be a lukewarm feel-good affair. The assorted cameos may be gratuitous (David Beckham, for example), but they are also entertaining, despite being slightly untimely due to two of the cameos having announced their retirement from the game shortly before the U.S. release of the film. Director Danny Cannon also somehow secured old match footage, which is seamlessly blended in with the footage of the actors, lending further credibility to Santiago's experience at Newcastle. The editing that blended match clips with footage shot with simulation actors is pretty impressive, actually, which makes me feel foolish for trying to pick out the discrepancies in the first place. (Deep breath. Repeat after self: suspension of disbelief. OK.)
In the end, the film offers no emotional surprises, but it nevertheless accomplishes its objective of entertaining, and perhaps even educating, the audience. And I was able to walk out of the theater with a smile on my face and a buzzing anticipation for the World Cup, which starts in just under a month, on June 9.