Power of the Game: Apted's Sports Documentary

Michael Apted’s “Power of the Game” is an ambitious documentary, aiming to explore how football creates a meaningful global bond among so many diverse countries. But it also deals with internal tensions within each country that plays the sport, including the United States.

Apted has enleavened his worthy subject matter with vivid interviews with players and organizers from places as varied as South Africa, Iran, the U.S. and Poland.

The earnest documentary has local scenes which examine the particularities of the game in individual countries as they pay tribute to its global reach.

There is plenty of match footage—ranging from the acrobatic to the violent–almost all of it from TV television broadcasts. For South Africans, for example, football–once all-white—the current state of the game reflects the country’s emergence from decades of apartheid.
But many Americans view football as the reverse application of globalization, the slow acceptance of a foreign sport, starting with school play and moving up to the professional level.

In Iran, football matches, from which women are barred as spectators, are beginning to see that ban crack. Jaffar Panahi’s feature “Offside” has already looked at the women’s spectator ban as a reflection of broader political circumstances.

Most of the characters Apted follows in the various stories are fascinating. An Iranian woman sports journalist, who was a protester for women’s rights 20 years ago, won a small victory to be allowed to enter the stadium in Tehran. Argentinian organizers talk of how the sport saves some of the players from a life of street crime, whereas Polish activists fight the strong tide of anti-immigrant racism.

Apted shifts deftly between match highlights and his interviewees. Clearly, his film’s subject is overreaching in scope, much larger than his documentary can accommodate. He is less successful at exploring the challenges that the sport faces.

Power of the Game also notes that football can be a platform for racist demonstration, including some gruesome footage. Yet there are not many scenes of football hooliganism, a recurrent problem in Europe and South America.

Nor does the film deal with the growing commercialization of the game, which undermines its good merits and places World Cup games beyond the means of middle class and working class fans.