August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment


One of the unintended consequences of the recent civil unrest in London was the opening of a tiny wormhole in Whitechapel High Street, just outside JD Sports, as a result of a teenager attempting to steal a pair of shoes he was already wearing. This tiny rip in the space-time continuum closed almost immediately, but not before one page of a film magazine fell through, apparently from the date December 12, 2039. The only complete review is reproduced below …

Documentary review: The Man Who Killed Football (The Man Who Brought It Back To Life), dir. N. Spooner. Five stars.

In all of the history of football, it is difficult to call to mind a player quite as brilliant, ridiculous, nonsensical, and glorious, as Tiago Manuel Dias Correira, hailed in Portugal as The Hammer of The Gods, lamented in Manchester as The One That Got Away, revered in Barcelona as The Wizard (and feared in Madrid as He Who Must Not Be Named), but known to all the world, and probably the Martians too, as Bébé.

His footballing story has been told and told again, and will doubtless be rephrased and reframed for as long as children and overgrown children still thrill to the simple joy of kicking balls around: from homelessness on the streets of Portugal to an unprecedented four consecutive Ballon d’Or awards to back-to-back World Cups, with any number of sparkling goals along the way. That story is emphatically not the focus of this new documentary. Instead, this is about Bébé the man, and through him, about football the industry, football the social construct, and football the murky criminal slum.

Not a standard biopic, then, nor a strident exercise in tubthumpery. Instead, it’s a chronological shuffle through a catalogue of off-field events, however minor, and however bizarre. While it might frustrate some that more time is devoted to the episode in which our protagonist is revealed to have been operating his own parody Twitter account, @BébéGotBack, than to, say, his winning goal in the 2017 European Cup semi-final — for non-football following readers, this is roughly equivalent to a biopic of Michelangelo downplaying the Sistine Chapel in favour of a lewd doodle on the wall of a Florentine public toilet — it serves the purpose and intent of the film well. Besides, you can watch that goal on HoloTube any time you like.

Spooner’s underlying thesis is that Bébé, by simple virtue of his existence, caused football to first expose its inner calumnies, and then tear itself to pieces. This idea — Bébé as MacGuffin — is a persuasive one, powerfully presented and meticulously supported by patient exposition and well-chosen talking heads.

To pluck an example that fans with long memories may recall, consider the preposterous campaign of (now defunct) neo-fascist propaganda sheet the Daily Mail, who ran a series of pieces criticising the player’s performances before he had even played a game for Manchester United, apparently motivated only by their own base prejudices against anybody who had the temerity to be socially disadvantaged and foreign. Spooner elicits from this shabby tale an indictment of the retrograde attitudes that dominated football journalism at the time, at least among the tabloids, and includes an astonishing interview with a guilt-wracked  former editor in the shadow of Bébé’s statue in the Vatican.

More recent events form the heart of the film: the sensational trial of George Menzies, Bébé’s former agent, who was eventually convicted of a raft of offences in relation to his stewardship of the player. While Menzies does not appear — the terms of his sentence preclude participation in football related activities — his part in the Bébé story is skilfully pieced together from stock footage and other interviews, and is given its proper due as the first rumblings of Chairmanmeowgate, the ever-expanding scandal that has to date claimed the careers and reputations of one FIFA president, three American senators, one minor British royal, seventy-three Swiss police officers, a Russian fighter pilot and, of course, the life of one small housecat.

Throughout these epochal events, Bébé stands aloof, not less lonely for his fame, his wealth, and his startling footballing gifts. What interviews Spooner provides are typical of those that have spotted his career: terse, perfunctory, and minimal to the point of bashfulness. The longest — a three-minute segment from his Barcelona days — serves as an example non pareil in the underrated art of saying nothing; in perhaps the film’s only cheap shot, the occasional calls from Portugal for Bébé to enter politics are placed in sarcastic juxtaposition.

Ultimately, Bébé remains as inscrutable here as he did throughout his playing career; anybody looking for an analysis of what makes the man tick is advised to save their money. But while he is mysterious, the venality of the football world through which he moved itself is ruthlessly picked apart. Before the recent slew of exposés, this was a world in which players — children — were shipped across the world with impunity at the whim of agents, only to be discarded once they had outlives their usefulness. A world in which gigantic slush funds served to prop up unaccountable administrators, and in which corrupt financiers worked hand in hand with immoral sportswear companies to ensure an endless flow of money from the pockets of the fan into innumerable offshore bank accounts and Delaware-masked ghost corporations. A world that had stripmined the very soul out of the simplest, most democratic, most universal sport ever created.

Whether he meant to or not, Bébé changed all that. This is the story of how he did it; how his simple existence managed to give football back to itself. It seems small wonder that a community of Brazilian anarchists recently unveiled a mural in Rio de Janeiro depicting the player as a Christlike figure, after Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, unruffled and almost saturnine at the depredations and betrayals surrounding him. Spooner returns to this image again and again, until the messianic parallel becomes a leitmotif for Bébé, the triumph of a simple, good man over a wicked world.

Perhaps the sweetest moment comes at the conclusion of the film. In his only face-to-face contact with their protagonist, Spooner pitches up at a Dulwich Hamlet training session. After watching Bébé take the youth team through their drills, he asks him to comment on the maelstrom of scandal through which he passed. It’s a curious question, admittedly, akin to asking the jewels how they feel about the denouement of a heist movie, but Bébé takes it in good grace. Turning to the camera with amusement in his eyes, he simply smiles that famous crooked smile, winks, and takes his leave.


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