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  • Author Marc McLaren
  • Published November 7, 2013

Why I love… Escape to Victory

It’s one of the iconic films of the 1980s – but for the right reasons? Stuff magazine’s Marc McLaren says Yes – absolutely…

Why I love… Escape to Victory

It’s one of the iconic films of the 1980s but for the right reasons? Stuff magazine’s Marc McLaren says: “Yes – absolutely…”
It’s almost full time and Germany lead 4-3. Lionel Messi picks up the ball, pirouettes and passes to Johnny Depp. He spies Theo Walcott tearing down the right past Matt Damon and chips it into the winger’s path. Walcott, with German soldiers glaring at him from the sidelines, whips in a cross back towards Messi on the edge of the area. It’s too high but the little genius pivots, leaps and hooks his right leg up over his head, sending the ball fizzing towards the German goal. Time appears to stand still. Then pandamonium. He’s scored. The crowd erupts, the players are engulfed. And the match isn’t even over yet.
Ridiculous, yeah? But it actually happened. Or rather its ’80s equivalent happened – and I know, because I’ve seen the film.
That film is Escape To Victory and it is by some distance the best football movie ever. Alright, so that’s not saying a lot, but you can only beat the opposition that’s put in front of you, Brian.
The story is simple enough: a group of Allied POWs are challenged to a game against the German national team as a propaganda exercise by the Nazis. They instead use the match as cover for an escape bid. While the plot is fairly standard, the cast is anything but.
The Dream Team
Michael Caine leads an Allied team containing Bobby Moore, Pelé, Ossie Ardiles and, er, Sylvester Stallone. Yep, that’s right – Pelé, the greatest player ever, ‘acting’ in a film alongside Rambo and the butler from Batman. Stranger still, half a dozen players from Ipswich Town also feature. OK, so Ipswich were pretty good back then, but it’s still a bit weird seeing Russell Osman playing alongside Pelé. The German team isn’t quite so star-studded, having to make do with actors, Ipswich reserves and a few US soccer ‘stars’. Obviously Gerd Muller and Franz Beckenbauer were busy that weekend.
But don’t dismiss it as a novelty act just yet. The film was directed by two-time Oscar-winner John Huston and was inspired by the true story of Dynamo Kiev’s wartime games against the Germans in occupied Ukraine. There’s a bit of romance, a bit of action and plenty of tension as the escape plans develop. Of course all of that’s secondary to the beautifully choreographed on-pitch action.
Match of the D-Day
The match takes up roughly a quarter of the movie but features about 99% of its highlights. The Germans race into a 4-0 lead, helped by some dodgy refereeing and some Robert Green-esque goalkeeping by Sly, who’s only playing so that he can be part of the escape plan. “I said stay on the bloody line,” Caine tells him after the fourth.
But the Germans’ increasingly brutal tactics backfire: when Pelé is almost snapped in two by one challenge and staggers off, Caine snarls, “We’ve taken enough lads, let’s get ’em.” The crowd in occupied Paris are equally incensed, raising Allied spirits with chants of “Victoire!” and a rousing rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’.
Moore duly pulls one back before half time but the real turning point comes in the dressing room. The resistance have broken through and Sly’s off down the escape tunnel only for the rest of the team to protest that they can still win the match. Sly, being American, couldn’t care less about some crummy soccer game – until Pelé, channelling the gravitas which he’d later put to such good use selling Viagra, tells him: “If we run now, we lose more than a game.”
Overhead over heels in love
And so they return. Ardiles waltzes through about six Germans to notch a second, then sets up a third. And then comes The Overhead Kick. A disclaimer: I’m a rubbish footballer; I once scored a hat-trick of own goals in a school match. But like every footie-mad teenager in the ’80s, I attempted to recreate Pelé’s defining moment countless times. And truly it is his defining moment. His first in the ’58 final? It’s in black and white, so impossible to tell. The lay-off for Carlos Alberto in Mexico ’70? The Italians were ragged by that point. The dummy on the Uruguayan goalie that same tournament? Very clever and all that, but he missed. But his overhead kick here? You’ll never see a better one. Not only that, but it basically won the Second World War.
It doesn’t win the match though. With the scores level, the Germans get a penalty. Cue the Hollywood ending, as Stallone flings himself through the air to crush the German propaganda machine. According to former Liverpool and Scotland legend John Wark, who stars for the Allies here, Sly wanted to finish the game by saving the penalty then dribbling down the pitch and scoring the winning goal. Fortunately, someone explained to him that this is football, not Hollywood. And so it instead ends with the fans invading the pitch and the Allied players escaping amid the crowds.
The greatest film ever? Not by a long shot. But for football fans of a certain age, it’s infinitely more exciting than watching Shearer and co on Match Of The Day.

Marc McLaren is production editor of Stuff magazine
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