“Rapido!” As young Santiago (Leonardo Guerra) and his father Hernan (Tony Plana) scramble over the border from Mexico to California, the boy is stunned still when he loses hold of his soccer ball. Hernan stands above him on a rise, holding up the fence they must scrunch under, while the boy half-falls, half-runs down the hill to recover the ball. Border patrollers are approaching and Hernan yells after Santiago, angry that he would risk their safety for the sake of a ball.
Years later, in Goal!: The Dream Begins, Santiago (now grown up to be Mexican tv star Kuno Becker) is working with his father in Los Angeles: Hernan has a small landscaping/gardening business, including a rickety truck to transport his employees, and Santiago is still devoted to soccer. Each day after work, he takes the bus too the field where he and he and other unpaid enthusiasts play pickup and loosely organized matches. When Santiago’s informed that he can’t play unless he has shin guards — that he cannot afford — he pulls scraps of cardboard out of a trashcan, slips them under his socks, and runs onto the field, where he is a star. As his coach tells an admirer, “God taught him.”
While his father wants Santiago to join him in the business — so the truck logo will read “Munez & Son” — the son resists this future, insisting, much to Hernan’s distaste, that he wants to play soccer professionally. They live with Hernan’s mother Rose (Miriam Colon) and younger son, both of whom appreciate Santiago’s talent more than dad. He’s still holding a grudge against the boys’ mother, who abandoned them; this mention of backstory allows Hernan to resist all manner of aspiration, and only focus on what is attainable. To be a man, he asserts, means not chasing a “stupid dream,” but instead, taking care of one’s family, even if it means settling for disagreeable jobs. “It’s your life,” Santiago says in defiance (though not quite stomping his foot), “Not mine.”
The ongoing tension comes to a head when — as must happen in an inspirational sports drama — Santiago gets his big chance. This in the form of a former Newcastle United star and scout, Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane), who happens by the field one day. Impressed, he gets on the phone with the United manager, gets a promise for an try-out, and invites Santiago to fly himself to northeastern England. As this is a rather daunting expense, Santiago must go through more arguments with father and some other emotional hardships before at last he arrives on Glen’s doorstep.
Lacking a plot, Goal! leans heavily on such predictable hardships to stretch out the time until Santiago’s inevitable success. These fall into broad categories. The first would be weather: for his first try-out, Santiago flounders in wind, rain, and mud, not quite impressing United’s gruff German coach Erik (Marcel Iures), who peers out from under his hood through downpour and shakes his head. As Santiago engages in more outdoors-athletic activities in England, he becomes acclimated, the seeming point being that he is a dedicated footballer at heart, and only needs to adjust to this cold climate to prove himself thus. (There’s another point here, concerning the ways that broadly cultural and political anxieties about illegal immigration are usually assuaged — or repressed — by the exploitation of lucrative fútbol luminaries, but this plotline remains unexplored.)
A second, unrelated and equally unexplored concern has to do with health: Santiago hides the fact that he has asthma, an issue that serves no function except to prolong film’s running time, save for a brief note about the excellent health care provided to soccer stars and the young, ignorant barrio denizen’s lack of knowledge and care. Mostly, this health crisis leads to a couple of tense breathing episodes and a snarky look from a rival.
As this medical deception is easily fixed, the movie reaches for another obstacle, also unconnected to the first two and more hackneyed: Santiago must learn how to grapple with fame and a suddenly changed class status, here posited as the temptations of parties and girls. The bad role model is Gavin (Alessandro Nivola), United’s resident and much resented celebrity player, who drinks excessively and does drugs, drives expensive vehicles, sleeps with numerous nubile girls, and habitually arrives late for games and practices.
Though Gavin is predictably mean to the outsider Santiago at first, he soon takes him under his wing, as much to confirm his own legitimacy as a bad boy as to have a partying partner. Santiago is thrilled to be invited “in,” and so leaves behind Glen’s sage advice and generosity, only to get himself into trouble. Again, a plot extension that seems unnecessary, as does Santiago’s predictable romance with the team nurse, Roz (Anna Friel), who is lovely and giving and encouraging, and white. (And who, for some reason, does not pick up on his asthma during his examination.)
Because it’s a generic triumphant sports movie, Goal! can’t be poking around inside the problems it sets up, for instance, the systemic problems of celebrity, the exploitation of athletes, or the complications of race and nation in a sport, like soccer/football, that is so resolutely international and so wildly popular. As Hernan tells Santiago early on, “There are two types of people in the world, those who live in big houses and those who cut their lawns and wash their cars.” For all its frankly thrilling, whomping soccer field action, Goal! can’t think beyond this dichotomy.