Mexican heartthrob Kuno Becker stars as Santiago Munez, a 20-year-old soccer sensation who, 10 years earlier, illegally skedaddled across the California-Mexico border with his family. He's practically invisible to the wealthy Anglos whose yards he tends with his father, but his soccer skills are anything but invisible to Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane), a former pro player and scout in the English Premier League. Believing the boy to be a potential superstar, Foy arranges a tryout with Premier League team Newcastle United... if Santiago can make his way to England. That's a tall order for a poor Mexican kid without legal documentation, but hardly the most daunting obstacle that Santiago will face. Before it's all over, he'll have to contend with everything from inclement British weather, media scrutiny, personality clashes, the political machinations of pro sports and the temptations of success to such personal issues as asthma, a motherless upbringing, an unsupportive father and ball-hog tendencies. And yet, every time this veritable thicket of handicaps starts to seem insurmountable, Santiago digs deep and finds a will and a way to overcome.
Sports films of this sort typically rely on a predictable "two steps forward, one step backward" rhythm that falls into place with piston-pumping regularity. It's a terribly unsubtle style of storytelling, but that doesn't stop the makers of "Goal!" from taking it a step further and piling on the obstacles to a degree that would stretch credibility even for video game programmers. And yet, something about the picture still manages to work, its almost shameless embrace of style and sincerity offsetting the structural flaws to a point where audiences may find themselves developing a lump in their throats and rolling their eyes at the same time.
There's no question that Becker's charisma and impeccable good looks play a part, but it's director Danny Cannon's sleek and sexy stylization that really works to pump up the sport's sizzle factor. Those not especially enamored of soccer, however, should not expect any expositional handouts -- Cannon and all four credited writers (including Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais of "The Commitments" fame) are Brits, and they clearly expect anyone watching to already be up to speed.
The degree to which the film means to take America to task over its neglect of undocumented workers is debatable; the degree to which it means to take America to task America's over its neglect of the world's most popular sport is not. Either way, with the film wedged between recent immigrant rights marches and the forthcoming World Cup tournament in Germany, its timing could not be better.
The rest of the picture is a pastiche of pro cameos (Alan Shearer, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham, to name three), along with story elements and characters migrated from kindred genre flicks like "Top Gun." It's a solid supporting cast, despite the plug-and-play archetypes: Alessandro Nivola (sporting a spot-on English accent) as the overpaid hotshot superstar, Marcel Iures as the no-nonsense coach, the always endearing Gary Lewis as the more understanding assistant coach, and Anna Friel as the seraphic love interest. Ordinarily, summertime counter-programming to niche audiences is a risky proposition undertaken only by the foolhardy or the uncommonly confident. For the time being, at least, the makers of "Goal! The Dream Begins" are clearly among the latter. Starring Kuno Becker, Alessandro Nivola, Stephen Dillane, Marcel Iures, Anna Friel and Gary Lewis. Directed by Danny Cannon. Written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Mike Jefferies and Adrian Butchart. Produced by Mark Huffam, Matt Barrelle and Mike Jefferies. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG for language, sexual situations and some thematic material including partying. Running time: 117 min