By James Lattimer
When my father was young, he’d go and watch the football every week. From the terraces of the County Ground, he watched Northampton Town go from the Fourth Division to the First in just four seasons, a rise unprecedented in the club’s history. But the Cobblers fell as fast as they rose and were back in the Fourth Division just a few years later. On February 7th, 1970, my dad watched Northampton Town play Manchester United in a FA Cup home tie and lose 8-2, with George Best scoring an unprecedented six times. There are highlights of the match on YouTube, someone from Brazil uploaded a compilation video of the goals. Pelé once said George Best was the greatest footballer in the world.
I only ever went to Northampton a couple of times and never to the County Ground. I’ve never been to a football match either, the only games I’ve seen were on television with my dad as a child or when I was dragged to see the World Cup in some crowded bar. I can only imagine what it’s like to follow a team, to memorise line-ups or scorelines, to stand on the terraces and shout. It’s not something I’ve really thought about a lot. I’ve never been interested in football, I don’t even really know what it is.
In Jerónimo Rodríguez’s El rastreador de estatuas, a Chilean director called Jorge now based in New York sets out to find the statue of a Portuguese doctor his father took him to see one afternoon in Santiago, way back in 2000 when his father was still alive. In Sergio Oksman’s O Futebol, a Brazilian director called Sergio, living in Madrid, returns to Sao Paulo for the 2014 World Cup in order to reconnect with the father he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Two fathers at an impossible remove, two directors living elsewhere; two fathers with an obsession for football, two directors slyly fictionalising their own biographies. It must be liberating to make a film where nobody can tell when you’re telling the truth and when you’re not, maybe it’s better to forget about such differences anyway. Magazines and sticker books, matches on screens, fixtures, famous players, songs, commentators’ voices. One stadium far in the distance, another too close to home. All roads lead to football, but all roads lead away from it too.
Jorge says he’s not really into sport and it’s statues, not sport, that seem to catch his eye. Yet football keeps creeping into El rastreador de estatuas nonetheless, bubbling up again and again in the cracks between the sunlit parks, empty plinths, Youtube videos and film excerpts. Perhaps that’s why he refers to his quest as a “partido”. Jorge’s not really into the linear either, his search for the statue in his memory taking place in carefully orchestrated fits and starts, gentle, conscious digressions that fold back on themselves again and again, each new discovery quietly enriching the previous ones. The film’s crowning achievement is to make you believe that this quest is haphazard, organic, unplanned. You have to deploy an awful lot of rigour to appear this casual. You have to collect an awful lot of images to make them seem so perfectly tossed off.
The football all comes from Jorge’s father. When Jorge was a child, they’d play football trivia together, his father taught him the entire history of the sport. He celebrated when Chile hosted the 1962 World Cup. But like everything in this film, football is never just what it is, it’s always something else too. It is a series of moments when the Soviet Union and Chile touched: when the Chileans beat the Soviets as World Cup hosts, when the Soviets eliminated the Chileans four years later, when the Soviets refused to play the second leg of a 1973 qualification tie because the match coincided with the coup and the Estadio Nacional was being used to hold political prisoners. The Chileans played on anyway and scored a goal of honour with no opposition at all. With no opponent to battle, it’s no surprise they ended up battling themselves. Jorge says he always associated his dad with the Soviet Union. What better way is there to measure the distance between celebration and hostility than football?
Football is also a man smiling on the cover of the magazine Jorge finds in a box of his fathers’ possessions. Enrique Omar Sívori was his father’s favourite player, a man who left his humble beginnings in Argentina behind to play for Juventus and was unafraid to change his nationality along the way, a man as adaptable as the human brains Jorge’s father studied and operated on. Jorge’s father was always going to be fascinated by such a feat of mutation. While working on a film, Jorge happens to pass through San Nicolas de los Arroyos, the town where Sívori was born and the place where he died. Jorge hears about plans to build a bust to commemorate this town’s most famous son, but when he goes to where it’s supposed to be, he finds nothing. The guy selling football memorabilia doesn’t even know who Sívori is.
Football is the anthem of the Colo Colo club, a rousing tune not so very different from a Foreign Legion song, a Brazilian Marine Corps march or the Internationale. It all depends on where you hear such songs and how loud they’re played. Jorge speculates that the different messages conveyed by all these anthems will eventually be consigned to oblivion and that people in the future will see them for their similarity, not for their difference. They will be like monuments crumbling in parks, their meaning forgotten along with their missing plaques. But memory doesn’t even need that much time to do its work. When you watch a film, particularly one such as this, you always remember things differently each time round.
You don’t have to wait for football to arrive in O Futebol, it’s there in the very first frame. Sergio and his father stand in the rain before the Estádio do Pacaembu in Sao Paulo, where the two of them used to watch Palmeiras play when Sergio was a child. They are not standing particularly close to one another and two layers of fences separate them from the stadium, a configuration that the three-week World Cup will do little to change. After this, we hardly ever see their two faces together: they are usually shot from behind, from the backseat of the car in which they drive through the city. Otherwise, Sergio likes to train the camera on his father’s face, in his office, in the bar on the corner, in an underground car park. You could easily forget the camera is even there, except for the fact that Sergio’s father occasionally addresses it.
Sergio’s father is just as into football as Jorge’s and just as good on trivia. He hasn’t forgotten the line-up of the Brazilian team that played Yugoslavia in the 1954 World Cup. He can still tell you who refereed the game between Corinthians and Palmeiras that commemorated Sao Paulo’s fourth centenary the very same year. Yet for someone so obsessed with football, it’s strange he’s so unwilling to catch a match when they’re happening nearly daily. Sergio keeps suggesting they should go and see a game together, but his father always has an excuse. He can’t leave the office during the week, the tickets are too expensive and they’re impossible to get your hands on them anyway. The nearest they get to the World Cup is a stadium you can barely make out through the windscreen in front of them. There’s no radio in the car, so they can’t even follow the game properly. It’s never clear whether the far-off cheers are for a goal or a miss.
If football isn’t something to experience, it’s certainly something that marks time, as the three weeks Sergio and his father have together are traced out by the match fixtures that flash up on the screen day by day. When England play Italy, Sergio’s father mentions that England only won the World Cup once, in 1966. He’s surprised that it’s nearly fifty years ago now, it doesn’t seem that long at all. But when Sergio asks him about other things that happened in the past, they seem much further away. He doesn’t really remember the wedding Sergio shows him 16mm footage of, the old holiday reels he sees means nothing to him either. He can’t even recall when he moved into his flat, after the 13, 14 years he spent in a hotel after leaving Sergio’s mother and the children. When he says he can talk football better than anybody, he means he can talk about football better than anything else. Perhaps that’s why Sergio always remembered his voice as that of a football commentator in their years apart.
You’d think a family reunion or a World Cup would be cause for celebration, for tension, for uplifting grand narratives. But even if they’re festooned with flags, the streets of Sao Paulo feel empty, overcast, leached of life. There are no great breakthroughs in Sergio’s relationship with his father either, no demonstrative hugs, no last-minute revelations, nothing that can turn it all around before the whistle is blown. The film’s crowning achievement is to lull you into thinking that neither of these things are spinning you a yarn, to trick you into thinking that all the quiet observation, all the long silences, all the games being watched on screens are pure unfiltered reality and nothing else. When has a family even been neat enough to fit into three meticulously planned weeks? For Brazil, the story of the World Cup is one of dashed hopes and disappointments, a story where the ending you hope for is not the one you get. Sergio never says if he got the ending he was expecting.
So what is football anyway? It is one song among many, an infinite reservoir of facts and figures to be returned to at will, it is a way of counting minutes, years, decades. It is total one-sidedness in Chile, cause for recrimination in Brazil, it is the absurdity of snow in Romania. There are few things it does not touch, it can always carry ideology within it, it is memory, mutation, manipulation. As Jorge might say, it is “a flexible organism, resistant to all”, specific and universal in equal measure. There’s perhaps only one other thing just as intangible, just as hopelessly broad, just as unknowable: a father.
Director: Sergio Oksman
Screenplay: Sergio Oksman, Carlos Muguiro
Cinematograher: André Brandão
Cast: Simão Oksman, Sergio Oksman, Ailton Braga
Production Company: DOK Films
El restaurador de estatuas
Director: Jerónimo Rodríguez
Producer: Jerónimo Rodríguez
Production Company: Cine Portable