Last week saw the timely U.S. release of “United Passions,” a film about errant soccer association FIFA, funded by errant soccer association FIFA. This was a vanity project to top all vanity projects, an attempt to rehabilitate the image of an organization now best known for its corruption and destructive nature. And, in the United States, it came exactly one week too late, following the arrest of several top FIFA officials and resignation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
“United Passions” reportedly made $607 dollars in the United States over the weekend. There’s no missing digit, no missing “thousand” which would make that number less embarrassing. Six Hundred and Seven Dollars, so little that someone probably had to make a call on whether to report how many cents it made over $607. Even given the recent controversy–which probably made more Americans think about FIFA than ever before–no one wanted to see FIFA’s movie about FIFA. And it’s really no wonder, since it has 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and (as of this writing) a legit 1 on Metacritic (again no digits missing there).
But, c’mon, you’re curious, right? That’s where I come in.
The Russell Crowe sword-and-sandal epic “Gladiator” was also, technically, inspired by actual events and real people, in that there was an ancient civilization in Rome and an emperor named Commodus. Unfortunately, there are no scenes in “United Passions” in which Sepp Blatter fights a tiger.
What follows is the sappiest possible framing device, a bunch of multi-ethnic children assemble on a dusty field in the modern day to play a game of soccer.
This is, I suppose, the meaning behind the title: soccer as a uniting force. It is a “passion” that brings together people from every background, every country (except the United States), and every walk of life. But shouldn’t the title be “Uniting Passions” instead? What does “United Passions” even mean?. It just sounds like a licensed Cinemax flick about the Mile High Club.
The montage of multi-ethnic children playing soccer immediately cuts 100+ years into the past, to a bunch of men playing soccer in 1904. A pleasant voiceover by Carl Hirschmann, the protagonist of the prologue, explains the need for a worldwide body to govern soccer. He is drafting letters to the British Soccer Association suggesting a merger to form a greater European association. In the next scene, Hirschmann visits the recipient of his letters, an Englishman who rejects the idea of a worldwide governing body and calls his visitors “frogs”. Most of them aren’t even french.
Also this dude in a top hat and monocle yells “football may be a gentleman’s game, but it is a man’s sport!”
The rest of the Europeans decide to spite the English and go forward with forming their association. They specifically state they are doing it to fuck with the British, and elect Robert Guerin as their first president because he is “the least drunk” among the group. Remember, this is supposed to be a hagiography of FIFA.
Throughout this process, Hirschmann gives multiple speeches about how important it is for the rules of soccer to be regulated across the world. Also all the men literally chant “FIFA, FIFA.”
The last scene of the prologue is a bizarre one in which Hirschmann celebrates with Guerin, even though they really haven’t accomplished anything yet. Guerin wants to invite a woman at the bar to celebrate with them and for some reason Hirschmann flips out and convinces him not to talk to the woman. I have no idea what this has to do with soccer.
After Hirschmann cock-blocks Guerin, they leave the bar and walk off into a circle-wipe that ends the prologue and jumps forward 20 years, neatly skipping over World War I because this is not a movie concerned with interesting topics like war. This is a movie about FIFA.
Everyone knows that Gerard Depardieu died of shame in August of 2011, after urinating in the aisle of an airplane in a highly-publicized incident. Once an unconventional, but beloved, leading man in France, there is no way that Depardieu could have survived the incident. But for “United Passions”, FIFA spared no expense in resurrecting his bloated corpse to play Jules Rimet in the first act, which starts in 1924.
After twenty years, FIFA still does not have the prestige or success that Hirschmann dreamed of back when he was a young man, sneering at British lords and preventing his so-called friend from hooking up during their celebratory night out. New president Jules Rimet, however, has a brilliant idea: why doesn’t FIFA hold a World Championship of some sort? Hirschmann recognizes this plan as brilliant, but there’s only one problem: FIFA is poor as shit. It turns out that there isn’t much money in promulgating the rules of soccer across international lines, and what profit has been reaped has gone straight into Jules Rimet’s buffet budget.
A representative from Uruguay comes to Rimet with an offer that he can’t refuse. He says that his government has “unlimited resources” to host a world championship, as long as FIFA agrees to host it there. “You need the money,” he says. “We need the world championship.”
What follows is a montage of speeches given by Rimet announcing the World Cup, but stating that it has not been decided where it will be held. Then there is a vote which, surprise, Uruguay wins. The very first act establishing the World Cup includes a lie at best, fraud and bribery at worst.
Remember, this is supposed to be a hagiography of FIFA.
Rimet’s daughter–who exists throughout the film almost purely as a mouthpiece for the modern FIFA– defends the selection of Uruguay at a party against a strawman racist who calls Uruguay a backwards nation that has no business hosting an international competition. Strawman Racist likens Uruguay to the tip of Africa, a land full of Zulu warriors, to which Rimet’s daugher gives a canned speech about how soccer is for everyone. I can’t help but read this as a direct reference to the current controversy over holding the World Cup in Qatar, trying to paint those opposed as racist or close-minded. And the comparison does hold, because in the film Uruguay bribed FIFA to get the World Cup, too.
In a later scene, Rimet’s daughter comforts him when he voices concern over whether it is appropriate to spend money to play soccer when there are people dying of poverty. “When have dreams ever been appropriate?” she asks. “You’re not stealing anything from anyone.” Which, of course, would be true if they weren’t taking a ton of money from Uruguay to host the World Cup.
Rimet visits Uruguay and the building of the stadium, where he and the Uruguayan official who bribed him are validated with a miraculous snowfall, as if God himself is blessing the corruption of FIFA.
The World Cup is shown as successful through a series of newsreel clips, but when we check back in with Jules Rimet and company in 1931, we are informed that FIFA has lost everything on the stock market. “Somebody will be made to take the blame,” Rimet says, then prophetically adds. “Will it be the Jews or the communists?”
Seconds later, a newspaperman walks by yelling “Mussolini! He’s a force to be reckoned with!” This is 1931, nine years after Benito Mussolini took control of Italy and six years after that control was so iron-clad that he began calling himself Il Duce, so I don’t exactly know why this is headline news except that this is a bad movie. As the paperboy walks by, Hirschmann resigns from FIFA, leaving Rimet all alone with his thoughts and an out-of-date newspaper about Mussolini.
The film jumps forward five years to allow Jules Rimet to argue with the Germans and Italians for several minutes to display an uncannily progressive agenda and shocking prescience regarding the state of Europe. That is literally the only point of the scene in 11936
Suddenly, we’re in 1942, skipping over the next World Cup, and presented with a scene where FIFA officials describe the “Death Match” of 1942 to Rimet. This was a soccer game between the Ukrainian Start Football Club and a team of German Air Defense Military. The Ukranian team had been warned that they would be executed if they didn’t throw the game, refused to throw the game, and the results were unsurprising.
Foggy, ethereal shots of people playing soccer in purgatory accompany the story. Then Jules Rimet says he wishes that FIFA could have been there to prevent it, because everyone knows that professional sports associations are the go-to frontline defense against war crimes.
The rest of World War II goes unaddressed as Jules Rimet prays in front of a wooden cross and we skip to Brazil in 1950. I am not making this up.
The 1950 World Cup is portrayed in a protracted sequence showing highlights from the game that we simply don’t care about. This is the first time either team (Brazil or Uruguay) has been featured, and it’s historical fact that Uruguay won, so I have no idea what kind of tension the film was trying to build. I suspect that FIFA wanted to show the end of Rimet’s tenure in a positive light, free of conflict. But conflict-less film is boring, so we got five+ minutes of a soccer game we couldn’t care about.
Rimet goes onto the field and presents the trophy, looking around, presumably shocked at how affected the people are by the result of the game. And then six years later, he is dead. Because once you’ve prayed away World War II, there is nothing left to accomplish. “His sole regret,” his daughter says. “Is that he was never a great footballer himself.” With that, Gerard Depardieu is allowed to return to the world of the dead, no longer needed as a propaganda tool for FIFA.
The second act of “United Passions” stars Sam Neill as Jaoa Havelange, a Brazilian member of the International Olympic Committee who joins FIFA in the 1960s. He is first seen on an airplane, sitting next to the President of FIFA in 1964, yet another haughty Brit named Sir Stanley Rous. Rous tries to humiliate Havelange, suggesting that a Brazilian would have no place in the leading body of FIFA and reminding him (as all Brits in this movie do) that England invented soccer.
I can’t quite place why this movie is so anti-England, but I do know why it has selectively excised Rous from its list of FIFA presidents to rehabilitate, as Rous was vehemently pro-apartheid. And if there is anything that this film has done so far, it’s beat me over the head with the idea that FIFA is socially-progressive, anti-Nazi, pro-multiculturalism. Of course, the filmmakers didn’t cast an actual Brazilian as Havelange, but an Irish-born Englishman.
Havelange is portrayed in only one more scene prior to his election as FIFA President in 1974, where he assures the African official attending the 1970 World Cup that he has “plans for Africa.” Now, in 1970, Africans should probably be wary of anyone who has plans for Africa but, don’t worry, Sam Neill is always a good guy. He defeats the haughty Brit in 1974 with the help of the African bloc.
One of Havelange’s first acts as president is bringing in an accounts man by the name of Sepp Blatter, played by Tim Roth. Yes, that Tim Roth. You all know Sepp Blatter, and you all know that he’s going to be the protagonist of the third act of the movie. But for right now, he’s just a guy who is “apparently good at finding money.” This is the exact line the movie uses.
Blatter’s job is to get sponsors for FIFA. He contacts Coca Cola and begins working on a contract. Meanwhile, he meets with a representative of Adidas on the side of the road, wearing a trenchcoat and smoking. Blatter proceeds to make the biggest deal in FIFA’s history up to this point after the Adidas rep shows him merchandise stowed in the trunk of a car. Remember, this is supposed to be a hagiography of FIFA.
While Blatter hustles for money, Havelange worries about the politics of soccer. The Africans are demanding more than just words regarding apartheid, though Havelange claims that expelling South Africa is enough. Words like “human rights violations” are bandied about. What does Havelange say about that? “Football brings consolation to all tragedies and sorrows.” He tells Blatter that folks like Mohammed Ali and Jesse Owens have done more for the cause of black people than any politician, and thus that sport is the way to effectuate social change.
Havelange makes his point by interfering in his nephew’s tabletop soccer game. His nephew says that Havelange is cheating. Havelange replies “if there is a cloud above the field, and god interferes and causes a goal, is that cheating?”
“But you’re not god,” Havelange’s nephew replies.
“You think so?” Havelange says. He is a protagonist of this movie.
Havelange elevates Blatter to second-in-command of FIFA with a dire warning. “You’ve risen very fast thanks to me, but if you disappoint me, you can fall just as fast.”
Soon, there are irregularities in the books. FIFA can’t pay their payroll, and Blatter signs a personal check to fulfill the obligations. Because he’s such a great guy, that Sepp Blatter. “I don’t know where the money is,” Blatter says. “But I have my thoughts.” We never learn those thoughts.
Meanwhile, the press is after FIFA. They want answers about instant replay, unfair red cards, and proposed sanctions on West Germany. A single Irish reporter comes to him with a question: “with all the distribution deals, how is FIFA losing money? I have accounting records. Who are you protecting?”
These are all very good questions, but they are never answered. Because Havelange and Blatter pull away in their car and then the film cuts to an upbeat montage of Sam Neill and Tim Roth enthusatically doing business set to “Wild Wild Life” by the Talking Heads.
This montage propels the film from 1982 to 1994. None of the questions about the finances are answered. The film literally does not address the fact that someone was clearly stealing money in 1982, and proceeds into a decade-plus good times montage of FIFA’s success.
Remember, this is supposed to be a hagiography of FIFA.
In 1994, Havelange approaches Blatter with an offer. Havelange wants Blatter to take over as President of FIFA, because Blatter has a particular quality that he appreciates. It is implied that this quality is “discretion”, as Havelange indicates that he wants to leave quietly, with honor, making no waves.
The film jumps to 1998, never addressing Havelange’s departure. Sepp Blatter is now president of FIFA, played by the star of the television show “Lie to Me”, because Jaoa Havelange was the last person at FIFA to understand the concept of irony.
Blatter is shown as President for the first time as he watches footage of soccer riots following the 1998 World Cup. This is his primary concern. He never wants to see riots again. It has now been 16 years since a reporter walked up to his car and told him that there were accounting records that proved money was being siphoned out of the organization and Blatter is worried about riots. Well, riots and the ethics of his underlings.
“This sport is spotless,” he tells them. “We will be exemplary in all respects. The slightest breach of ethics will be punished.”
He faces some pushback from the other FIFA representatives, which is understandable since he presumably has spent the last decade and a half covering up corruption–and I’m not just talking about in real life, but in the narrative of the film.
“Did [Havelange] make mistakes?” Blatter asks. “Not for me to judge.”
“United Passions” wants to portray Blatter as a reformer who brought an end to corruption while never actually condemning the man who came before him. And this, shockingly, brings back our Irish reporter friend all the way back from 1982 to lampshade this issue.
Irish Reporter points out that Blatter was Havelange’s second-in-command, so he either knew about the embezzlement or was an idiot. This sets up Blatter’s response on a tee, which is quite simply: “I was protecting the sport, and the family of FIFA, even those accused of impropriety.” This sounds good and all, if you’re not…uh…charged with defending the integrity of that sport as well. The film wants to suggest that Blatter attacked the corruption from within while protecting it from the outside. And maybe that’s a good position to take for a year, while you figure out exactly who is corrupt and not. But even in the narrative of the film, Blatter was skirting this line for over half my lifetime.
Now it’s time for another time jump, skipping over September 11. Because god forbid the film address anything political other than Nazis and Apartheid. We arrive at a New Years Eve party on 2001, where Blatter learns some bad news that is definitely not of his own making. Because Sepp Blatter is our hero.
The insurance company is refusing to insure the 2002 World Cup, which is an awful thing to find out the day before 2002 starts. Sponsors are threatening to pull out. To make matters worse, the World Cup is set to take place in both Japan and South Korea, which was a real great idea to begin with, since the Japanese and South Koreans barely get along.
Then the shit really hits the fan, because Irish Reporter has finally written his book.
I assume that this book is a fictionalization of the 2006 expose Foul! by Andrew Jennings. Jennings is a Scotch-English writer who investigated the organization for over a decade and eventually uncovered various FIFA scandals. Not a far cry from an Irish reporter who investigated for two decades and did the same thing. I don’t know why the film pushed the book all the way back to 2002, but I can certainly theorize that it was done to push off the allegations onto Jaoa Havelange rather than let them sit where they belong on Sepp Blatter’s desk. A book published in 2002 would cover far less of Blatter’s reign than one published in 2006.
The next scene has Blatter going through a list of FIFA voters, trying to suss out the “traitor.” This suggests that someone in the organization decided to pin the corruption on him or make it up wholesale. Sure, Sepp. Whatever.
Blatter goes to a retired Jaoa Havelange for advice. Not advice on finding the traitor or rooting out the corruption, but advice on winning the next election.
The security of Blatter’s presidency, the film wants us to believe, is the real concern. Not the corruption (which Blatter all but admits exists and that he helped cover up), not the traitor (who is a fabrication), and not the crisis about the World Cup (no insurance! no sponsors! regional conflict!) but Blatter’s job. Sepp Blatter is truly important.
The two corrupt buddies discuss the electoral process. Blatter tells Havelange that he has eight votes. Havelange replies that he needs 13 total, so five more votes in his favor. This is a blatant mischaracterization of how the voting occurs. There are more than 25 voting nations in FIFA. This isn’t just a flat-out lie, but one contradicted by a moment earlier in this very film in which Havelange won his election with 62 votes.
The reason for the lie? Blatter was never actually at risk in the 2002 election (and thereafter) because the voting was rigged to maintain the status quo. In 2002, there were over 200 nations voting in the election and they were never going to kill their cash cow. This tension is entirely manufactured by fabricating the voting process to make it look like Blatter’s job is in danger.
Despite the whole discussion of the election being a lie, Havalange has some advice, too: find give indecisive voters and make them fear you. Scare them and they will vote for you.
Remember, this is supposed to be a hagiography of FIFA.
The voting members of FIFA ask Blatter to step down. This probably didn’t happen in 2002. If it did, it was only a handful of voting members. Not enough to make a difference. Blatter refuses, even when the voting members claim to have enough dirt on him to send him to jail. They probably did have enough dirt on him to send him to jail, so this is the most truthful part of the film.
Are we supposed to believe that they have turned on him because he is investigating the corruption? Is that what is happening here? It’s weapons-grade insanity to think that even Blatter expects us to buy that narrative. But, then again, the climax of the film has nothing to do with uncovering the corruption. Or finding the ephemeral traitor. Or the 2002 World Cup which was falling apart minutes ago. The climax of the film is the election.
Of course, he is triumphant. By 139 votes, not 13 out of 25, because you can’t change history but you can hope that people forgot the scene a few minutes ago. (Also 139 votes out of 204 is pretty much a fucking landslide, so great job fabricating tension out of thin air).
The camera pulls out and everyone is applauding. This makes sense historically, since Blatter was hardly challenged, but is completely out of line with the world presented by the film. This is not an embattled man who barely survived his last stand against a powerful organization set against him.
There are no more mentions of corruption or traitors. In fact, the film never addresses exactly what the allegations were, other than to say “money went missing” and certainly never shows anyone–not even Blatter–working to fix the problem with anything other than a single speech.
Instead of wrapping up these issues–the real issues facing FIFA–the film returns to both the modern day framing device and the narration of the dead Carl Hirschmann. He beams with pride at how successful FIFA has become as we watch the multi-ethnic kids play on the sandy field. The girl, who throughout the film had been struggling as a goalie, breaks away and cuts through the rest of the kids to score a triumphant goal. She is lifted up on their arms as Fictional Carl Hirschmann continues his sappy speech.
But this is not the final indignity. No, as the film cuts to credits, it shows one more scene featuring the star of Lie to Me as Sepp Blatter. This is the announcement of the 2010 World Cup location in South Africa.
Fuck you, “United Passions”.
“United Passions” is a terrible movie. Not just because it is a boring slog about FIFA executives. Not just because most of the film lacks any conflict, lest it show FIFA in something other than a flattering light. And not just because it is internally inconsistent on several occasions.
No, it’s a terrible film because it has the audacity to not only cover up FIFA’s corruption, but excuse it. “United Passions” does not deny that there was embezzlement, bribery, and favoritism. But it attempts to place those sins in the context of an organization that serves a greater global good. This is why a paperboy in 1931 shouts “Mussolini is a force to be reckoned with!” This is why there is a scene that exists only so Jules Rimet can shout at a Nazi. This is why Jaoa Havelange subtly claims to be God in the same breath he places sports figures above politicians in the fight for civil rights.
And it’s why the last shot of the film is FIFA awarding the World Cup to South Africa in 2010.
“United Passions” wants to tell you a story about good people who allowed corruption to happen because with that greed came the end of World War II, the end of Apartheid, and an international women’s sport (that will, thanks to Sepp Blatter, be played on dangerous turf that would never be permitted in 2015 for men’s soccer).
Sports play a role in changing and shaping society, but not the way “United Passions” wants us to believe. Because this film features relatively well known actors playing names such as Jules Rimet and Sepp Blatter, but only uses stock footage to portray the real heroes in this regard (like Pele, mentioned twice by name in the entire film).
Sepp Blatter is not a fucking civil rights hero, and it’s disgusting that this film even insinuates the idea.