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The greatest football team ever put together - by a Hollywood studio director

Missing your weekly dose of Match of the Day? Who cares, when you can see Pele and Michael Caine beat the Nazis in Escape to Victory, asks Ed Power


Pele on the set in the MTK Stadion

Pele on the set in the MTK Stadion

Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone in the 1981 film

Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone in the 1981 film


Pele on the set in the MTK Stadion

Football and cinema have traditionally had a torrid relationship. The sport is difficult to portray on screen without actors looking like a bunch of eight-year-olds running around after the ball.

Given America's historical indifference to soccer, the pot- ential market for a great footie flick is limited.

That is, perhaps, starting to change, with American teams such as Atlanta United now routinely drawing raucous crowds of more than 40,000.

The transatlantic box office potential of the beautiful game has just been underscored by the arrival of a new Netflix series from Julian Fellowes, The English Game.

Focusing on the class rivalries of the sport's early decades, it's essentially Downton crossed with Match of the Day's Goal of the Month segment. But it isn't the first attempt to give football a swanky sheen.


In 1981, Escape to Victory wooed movie-goers with an unlikely mix of goalmouth action and World War Two espionage - and it did so against all the odds.

Its director, John Huston, maker of The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown and The African Queen, knew as much about football as Roy Hodgson does about the French New Wave.

Sylvester Stallone, its bigg-est star, had hardly heard of Pele, one of several big-name footballers with acting parts.

Michael Caine, portraying a former England international whose career had been rudely interrupted by the war, was 47 and looked it.

"Glamorous" and "Michael Caine" are not words usually encountered in proximity, yet he radiated Marilyn Monroe levels of other-worldly glitz compared with the rest of the motley cast.

Although Escape to Vic- tory featured stiff-as-a-goalpost screen debuts by genuine star players - joining Pele is England captain Bobby Moore and Argentina and Spurs dynamo Ossie Ardiles (all World Cup winners) - this galacticos ensemble was padded out with players from Ipswich Town, whose manager, Bobby Robson, was friendly with Freddie Fields, the film's producer.

"He came to the ground and asked if any of us wanted to take part in a movie," recalled Scottish midfielder John Wark.

"Five of us put our hands up - and that was only because we weren't doing anything that summer.

"We genuinely didn't realise how big it was going to be until we were on set in Hungary."

Escape to Victory was based on the supposedly true story of a World War Two "death match" in occupied Ukraine.

The story goes that, in August 1942, FC Start, comprising POWs from Kiev's two professional teams, played an exhibition game against German side Flakelf before a crowd of 2,000.

They were instructed to lose. Instead, the Ukrainians thrashed the Germans 5-3 and were promptly marched off to the stalag for their sins.

It was later dismissed as Soviet propaganda, but it gripped the imagination and Huston was brought in to sprinkle this grim apocryphal tale with Hollywood stardust.

Caine played Allied captain John Colby, formerly of West Ham and England.

Max von Sydow (who died earlier this month) was Major Karl von Steiner, a former German international who proposes the game to lift spirits on both sides.

Stallone, then arguably the biggest movie star in the world after starring in Rocky and Rocky II, was the token American, parachuted in to appeal to the US market.

Budapest's MTK Stadion had been chosen as a stand-in for the fateful stadium.


It looked authentically ante- diluvian and, crucially, had no floodlights (which didn't become standard until after the war). However, the cast found Hungary in 1980 rather lacking in the dazzle of Hollywood.

"I hadn't filmed in Budapest before, but I had gone there for Elizabeth Taylor's birthday party for four days, and I only remembered it in a sort of alcoholic haze," Caine would later lament.

"But when I got back there in the full clear light of day - well, bloody hell - Commu- nism depresses me more than a little bit."

An even bigger challenge than the political divide in Europe was Stallone's ego.

Not only did he turn up with two bodyguards and refuse to dine with the crew, he insisted his character, Captain Robert Hatch, score the winning goal.

He apparently didn't realise that, as goalkeeper, this would be a little far-fetched, even for Hollywood.

Instead, screenwriter Jeff Maguire tacked on a scene in which Stallone saved a penalty, just to keep Sly on-side.

Against all expectations, Escape to Victory became a decent-sized hit, even in America, where it was released as Victory.

It remains fondly regarded to this day - a rainy-afternoon staple to watch alongside The Great Escape, to which it pays homage with its jaunty theme.

One reason for Escape to Victory's longevity is that the football scenes are reasonably authentic.

The slow-motion sequen- ces, shot by famed sports photographer Robert Riger, have a balletic quality, and it achieves a genuine high with the great Pele scoring the overhead bicycle-kick goal that earns the Allies a 4-4 draw against the cheating Germans.

The Brazilian legend nailed it on the first take.

"You don't really realise the genius of Pele until you see it slowed down," recalled Stallone.

"How can anyone have 800 muscles coordinated at the same time?"

Caine would write in his memoirs: "Sometimes movies are just like a kid's dream come true.

"In this film, I was the captain of our football team, which included Pele, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles and the Polish World Cup captain Kazimierz Deyna. It truly was like a schoolboy's fantasy come true."