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Reviewing 'United Passions,' FIFA's bizarre propaganda film

Join us for a cinematic journey through the history of football administration, as we look at FIFA's film about FIFA.

Harold Cunningham

Fun times in FIFA-land. The multi-stranded arguments about the Qatar World Cup are rumbling on, the women of the World Cup are taking legal action to be allowed to play on proper grass and Sepp Blatter has his sights set on yet another term as FIFA president. And as if these various indignities weren't enough, it turns out they're also rubbish at making films. United Passions, FIFA's film about the history of FIFA, cost an estimated $27 million, and total takings have reportedly amounted to, at most, $200,000.

Yes, that's a real film. Yes, that is actually Tim Roth. And yes, that is actually Sam Neill and Gerard Depardieu. But don't worry about the fact that distributor after distributor has passed on the chance to bring it to cinemas, that it's already opened and then promptly closed in Russia, Portugal and Serbia. We've watched it, so you don't have do.

Disappointingly, United Passions fails in both directions. It is, you'll be entirely unshocked to learn, a bad film. The narrative sags, the script stinks, the occasional laughs are unintentional and Depardieu gets out-acted by his own nose. And yet it is not a bad enough film. Most of those interested in watching this film will do so in the hope that it goes so far through badness it comes out the other side as something hilarious. Most will be disappointed.

Appropriately enough, the film falls into roughly two halves. The first belongs to Depardieu's Jules Rimet, who with the help of his daughter Annette and an interchangeable coterie of mustachioed, waist-coated men, forms the World Cup from the rough chaos of football in the early 20th century. Two world wars and an economic crash come and go, as international football carves out its place, without quite ridding itself of its ramshackle, amateurish air.

FIFA's past is a hazy and uninterrogated one. For example, we learn that Uruguay were awarded the first World Cup behind the scenes, on the basis that they'd offered to pay for it; despite this, Rimet goes through with a sham vote. The parallels are screaming to be drawn -- and presumably an independent filmmaker tackling the subject would be less shy -- yet here it just blandly happens over two scenes, unremarked upon and apparently unremarkable. Later, he accuses an Italian official of "appropriating the World Cup," only to be reminded by Annette that unity among the football family is far more important than calling a fascist a fascist.

More is made of the intolerance that dominated football thinking of the time. The film opens with a monocled, bristling, preposterous Lord Kinnaird dismissing continental advances for footballing cooperation -- "What did those blasted Frogs want?" "Well, they want to run the world of football, sir. In place of us." "How ridiculous. What do foreigners understand about the beautiful game?" -- and then later sets up a conversation between Annette Rimet and a figure identified only as Larsen, who is skeptical at the notion of a South American World Cup.

"Why not have it at the tip of Africa with the Zulus?"

"Why not indeed? Who knows, the Zulus may be excellent football players. Maybe they just don't know it yet."

"But young lady, they're natives of Africa, are stupid and undisciplined. That's just their nature. How could they possibly be expected to appreciate the subtleties of a game invented by the whites? Negroes, playing football! Why not women while we're at it?"

It is made clear that neither Annette nor her father have any time for such nonsense, and by extension, nor does his federation. This is perhaps the most important of the stories that FIFA wants to tell about itself. That this is a federation who have, at all points, pushed for greater inclusivity, for "the ball to bounce to every corner of the world," as the closing monologue has it. For the Good of the Game.

This is made explicit at the beginning of the second half of the film, after Rimet's death and the reintegration of the English. Then-president Sir Stanley Rous advises young pretender Joao Havelange -- Sam Neill, who spends most of the film looking as though he's trying not to sneeze -- that his presidential aspirations should be left for the moment. "Our world just isn't ready for those who were born ... less fortunate," he chides the upstart Brazilian, before pointedly correcting him on just how a knight of the realm should be addressed.

Then, when Havelange triumphs over Rous -- sorry, Sir Stanley -- in the 1974 presidential election, the defeated Englishman is even less circumspect. "Those people will never understand the subtleties of football," he says, nodding towards the African delegations whose votes have secured Havelange's triumph. "The future of our sport lies in Africa, and Asia, and America," responds the victor, tartly. "And if you cannot see that, I cannot help you." At which point he leaves Rous to stew in his defeat, and shakes hands with one of the principle characters of the other story, the murkier, less noble thread of the FIFA story, Horst Dassler.

When Havelange took control of FIFA it was an elitist, arguably racist and assuredly skint organization. When he left in 1998, FIFA had property assets worth more than $100 million, had guaranteed billions coming in and was well on the way to amassing more members than the United Nations. That transformation, according to United Passions, was achieved under Havelange's direction, but Dassler, in his role as adidas supremo, was the man with most of the money, and a third man was in charge of much of the detail. The same man who signed off the script for this film. The same man who is about to win another term as FIFA president. Sepp Blatter.

Tim Roth's performance as Blatter is a deeply strange one. He arrives at FIFA resembling nothing so much as a nebbish, insecure encyclopedia salesman and he never seems to really grow into his suits. His utterances veer between the gnomic -- "Hooligans are consumers, just like everybody else" -- and the frankly, comical. At one point, needing adidas' money desperately, he confesses to Dassler that thanks to the political instability of the Cold War, the 1978 World Cup in Argentina "will be a fiasco, and we'll be out of business." You might that this negotiation tactic would backfire, but Dassler is not to be outdone. "The truth is, our company has almost no liquid assets." Then, over a picture of the Tango ball, FIFA and adidas are joined in matrimony. Let there be ticker tape.

No mention is made, of course, of ISL, the sports management company that Dassler founded in 1982, which spent many happy years accepting fixed fees from FIFA for sponsorship rights, then brokering deals with Coca-Cola and the other gargantuan FIFA partners. ISL collapsed in 2001 with debts of £153 million, amid allegations of making off-the-book payments totaling tens of millions of dollars to various FIFA executives, including Havelange and his son-in-law, Ricardo Texeira. At this point we should note that bribery wasn't illegal in Switzerland until 2000.

Not even FIFA's own film can let Havelange off the hook completely, and later on in the film he makes a curious semi-confession -- "I'm afraid that we have disappointed you" -- to his protege. But Blatter himself is another story. Here, Sepp is a crusader against all manner of wrongdoing, the cleaner of a house that is definitely dirty but whose dirt has only ever stuck to anybody else. "From now on we will be exemplary in all respects," he tells a seminar. "The slightest breach of ethics will be punished." That conversation is placed in 1998. And earlier, he tells Dassler that he's had to pay FIFA's employees out of his own money. "I don't know where the money's gone," he says. "But I have my suspicions."

There are a number of weird omissions from this part of the story, from Blatter's ascent to the presidency. Patrick Nally, the "founding father" of modern sports marketing and Dassler's partner for years, is completely absent. So too are Lennart Johannsson and Issa Hayatou, Blatter's clean-slate opponents in the 1998 and 2002 presidential elections. Also missing from the 2002 election are former secretary-general Michel Zen-Ruffiman, whose dossier on corruption threatened to bring Blatter down, and Farra Ado, then-president of the Somali Football Federation, who claimed to have been offered $100,000 by officials working for Blatter's re-election. Instead, this entire episode is portrayed as Blatter struggling, George Smiley-like, against the rotten apples within. Eventually, over swelling and triumphant strings, he wins the election, and football's glorious future can proceed unobstructed.

It would obviously be too much to expect FIFA to put its own murk on screen, not least because everybody involved entirely denies the existence of most of it. But it's clear that those making the film realized that they couldn't ignore it completely. So as a kind of compromise, we're left with a deeply unsatisfying version of events in which Blatter sits, unspoiled, as a kind of ingenue in the middle of everything. It's deeply unsustainable, and the film even acknowledges this. Investigative journalist Edgar Willcox tells Blatter "You were the secretary-general, for God's sake. Either you knew, which makes you guilty, or you didn't, which makes you a bloody fool." Blatter doesn't choose an option. Blatter just smiles.

Nobody ever chooses an option. At one moment Dassler tells Blatter that "The Olympic is politics, but the World Cup is people." Later, Havelange assures him that "sport and politics are inseparable." In the space of two short minutes, Havelange goes from "South Africa will not be welcome in FIFA until it has settled the issue of apartheid" to "The press go on about dictatorships and political prisoners and so on. But, as soon as the game kicks off, things change ... the intellectuals can protest as much as they like with their banners and their tracts and their speeches but ... then what? Nothing, it's forgotten. ... Football brings consolation to all tragedies and sorrow."

But everybody is working hard, to the point that it can feel almost sarcastic. Throughout, Blatter's associates continually praise his work ethic and how Blatter is unfailingly modest in his dismissal of their concerns. "When the World Cup is held (in Africa), in America, in Asia, then I'll take a break," he tells Dassler, as a crowd of Angolan children wearing adidas socks drink their half-time Coca-Cola. "We should be concentrating on women's football," he announces, though his belief that tighter kits might help didn't make the final cut.

Ultimately, criticizing United Passions' box-office performance is entirely beside the point. The true intent behind this film is revealed in the closing credits sequence. In a move that would be astonishingly crass were it not FIFA, Roth's Blatter is superimposed onto archive footage of the World Cup being awarded to South Africa in 2010. There he is, smiling his weird smile, alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. The fictional, corruption-fighting, squeaky-clean Blatter pasted over the real one. Subtlety has never been FIFA's strong point.

You will be entirely unsurprised to learn that the end of the film features a young girl dribbling a football the length of a dusty, improvised pitch to score a golden goal, while a patronizing, sonorous voice implies that football's popularity is entirely contingent on FIFA. This is propaganda. And it's bad, inconsistent, incoherent propaganda. Propaganda that doesn't really make sense and couldn't possibly work on even the most credulous of audiences. This is FIFA (read: Blatter) congratulating FIFA (read: Blatter) on being FIFA (read: Blatter). And the fact that it can't really get away with doing so is, in the end, the most telling thing of all. Well, that and the fact that there's hardly any actual football.