This sporting life

Still scoring after all these years

They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Thirty years ago, I was in a London taxi heading to a book launch for the first in a series of action-adventure novels co-authored by myself and former SAS soldier, Andy McNab. The West End lights glittered, the black cabs dodged, the red buses roared, and the pavements throbbed with Friday-night anticipation. Sitting opposite me was a commissioning editor from the publishing company. We were chatting, when suddenly she asked, “Do you like football?” “Love it,” I replied honestly. She nodded. “Which team do you support?” “Tottenham,” I answered. The “Hotspur” is unnecessary when discussing the beautiful game with a fellow football aficionado. She laughed. “Never mind.” It’s the reply we long-suffering Spurs fans have come to expect when declaring our allegiance. She considered for a moment, then said, “We’ve acquired the publishing rights for the novelisations of the Goal! movies. We’d like you to write them.”

Much of the success of the Goal! films derived from the fact that the actors appeared to be playing for and against genuine Premier League teams

The novelisation of a film script is a potentially challenging project. It’s normally the other way around, with novels adapted into screenplays. Movies are mostly between 90 and 120 minutes long, the scenes are short and much of the narrative is told without words – via a look, a gesture, or a shot that establishes location. So, my first thought was: how do I do this? My ever-helpful editor came to the rescue. “Read the script, go and take in the setting, see some matches and then write us the book you would have written had it been your novel adapted for film,” she told me. I was up and running.

Much of the success of the Goal! films released in the Noughties (two of the trilogy were recently voted one and three in a poll of the greatest football movies of all time) derived from the fact that the actors appeared to be playing for and against genuine Premier League teams, alongside footballers we instantly recognised. Throughout the series, some of those famous players also enjoyed cameo acting roles. In the first movie our hero, a young Mexican named Santiago Muñez journeys from the USA to England to follow his footballing dream. Despite multiple personal and footballing trials and tribulations, Santi eventually signs for Newcastle United and gloriously spurs them to last-minute Champions League qualification. So, part of my job with this commission was to visit Newcastle, watch matches, and generally get the picture. It’s hell being a writer!

In the second film Santiago moves to Real Madrid. So naturally, in the interests of accuracy, I had to follow. I arrived in Madrid on the day of El Clásico, the term given to any encounter between Real and Barcelona. This was during the era of Real’s first Galácticos (superstars): players like Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Sergio Ramos. Barcelona featured titans of their own, including the young Lionel Messi, but Real were expected to edge a tight match. Barca’s brilliant Brazilian, Ronaldinho, had other ideas. He scored two incredible goals in a three-nil thumping of the Galácticos and, after his second, most of the 81,000 strong crowd, virtually all of them fanatical Real supporters, stood up and applauded. No cheers, no whistles, just sustained applause. It was a spine-tingling moment. The film’s associate producer had arranged for us to meet some of the Madrid players after the match at their favourite nightclub. We went and waited, but no players turned up. Long past midnight a call came through from defender Roberto Carlos. “We can’t be there,” he said. “The manager told us for an hour how badly we’d played and then ordered us to go home.”

The third and last film was regarded by almost everyone as a total turkey, so I was permitted to write a stand-alone novel, in which Santiago starred at the World Cup. He was some player, that Santi. My books were mainly aimed at young readers and were translated into more than twenty languages. I made numerous visits to UK schools, talking about reading, writing and football. Then, one sunny afternoon. I found myself in a school gymnasium in Poland, signing copies of Gol! and talking to 50 or so twelve-year-olds and a smattering of parents, as the teachers translated. We’d reached the question-and-answer section when one said, “And we understand you play the guitar, Robert?” “Er… yeah,” I replied. A door swung open and another teacher came in, carrying an acoustic guitar. “Sing us a song,” she said. The kids cheered, the adults beamed, what could I do? I didn’t know the words to Football’s Coming Home and I doubted Poles would know it. But I’d just written a show about the letters of the alphabet for BBC’s CBeebies. The letter J episode included a song featuring a bear called Jerry who got a paw stuck in a jar of jam. For some inexplicable reason, I launched into that. It went quite well, considering, and at the end there was applause – maybe not on the Ronaldinho scale, but generous.

I learned recently that Kuno Becker, the actor who played Santiago Muñez, has come up with a screenplay for a fourth Goal! movie, seventeen years on from the original. Complications remain, rights issues have to be sorted, but Kuno, when the time comes – I’m up for it.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and musician

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Life, November 2022, Sport

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