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Unamerican Dream

Goal! follows an immigrant's pursuit of a European fantasy.

The lovable hero of Goal! The Dream Begins is the kind of guy some Americans don't find very appealing these days -- a Mexican immigrant who's trying to make a better life in East Los Angeles. Little matter that young Santiago Muñez (Kuno Becker) busts his butt working two crappy jobs -- cutting lawns and busing tables -- or that he's also a star athlete in the making. Those who dream of a border wall the length of the Rio Grande will want nothing to do with him, his self-sacrificial grandmother, his hardworking father or his skinny little brother. Rocky, yay! Santiago, get out!

Aside from its flirtation with the hot-button immigration issue, Goal! is a pretty standard sports movie. As in Rudy or Miracle, the beleaguered underdog finally makes good and the skeptics are silenced. Like Sylvester Stallone's lumbering heavyweight, Santiago gets respect -- and the girl. We get another huge, sometimes sticky dose of emotional uplift, cloaked in all the usual game-day cliches and most of the off-the-field ones. This is not a bad movie, but it's as familiar as Alex Rodriguez's batting average or Terrell Owens's big mouth.

On the other hand, the sport here is soccer -- fĂștbol -- and that could mean the only people who go see it in this country are Mia Hamm and your little cousin's team of nine-year-olds. Despite its huge global appeal, the growth of U.S. youth leagues and the relative success here of Major League Soccer (the L.A. Galaxy even turned a small profit last year), the game still doesn't captivate the great mass of American sports fans. Little wonder that the principals behind Goal! include a British director (Danny Cannon), two British screenwriters (Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) and a Mexican leading man (Becker is the heartthrob of the Latino TV hit Soñadoras). Or that most of the film takes place in the tough, northeastern English city of Newcastle, as well-known for its coals as for its goals. Clearly, these filmmakers have their eyes on foreign film markets. Already, there are two Goal! sequels in the works, and it's a good bet they're aimed more squarely at Madrid than Manhattan.

For now, we behold the youthful tribulations of Santiago Muñez. The son of a dogged laborer (Tony Plana) whose modest dreams include buying a truck and going into business with his sons, Santiago plays soccer in an L.A. rec league, but fantasizes about going pro. When a former British scout (Stephen Dillane) spots him bending it like Beckham in a public park, Santiago gets his chance. Ignoring Dad's stock objections ("Keep your feet on the ground, instead of your head in the sky") while availing himself of Grandma's support, he makes his way across the Atlantic to Newcastle for a tryout. You can guess the complications: an alien culture, a muddy field, vicious rivals, a pretty nurse (Anna Friel), a hard-nosed team manager (Marcel Iures). As if all that weren't enough, Santiago also suffers from asthma, a secret he is hard-pressed to keep while teammates on the practice squad kick his ass all over the pitch. Thus does inspiration come to blows with respiration.

But our Santi was not born for failure. Like scores of scrappy movie strivers before him, he predictably rises through the ranks. Meanwhile, director Cannon gives us some revealing glimpses of soccer-fan lunacy and the glitzy international football lifestyle, complete with loud discotheques, slinky groupies and self-destructive playboys (Newcastle United's fun-loving star striker is played by Alessandro Nivola). This is a far cry from the grim realities of English sport as expressed in working-class classics like This Sporting Life; even unlovely Newcastle is portrayed as a slick, exciting metropolis, thanks in large part to the painterly cinematography of Michael Barrett.

In the end, Goal! holds few surprises -- aside from cameo appearances by David Beckham and some other real-life soccer stars. The movie's lean, appealing hero gets what he worked so hard for, which means that we do, too, and the movie's very subtitle -- The Dream Begins -- implies that greater triumph awaits. Indeed, the advance word on Goal! 2: Living the Dream-- scheduled for 2007 -- is that Santiago Muñez will next play for one of the greatest soccer teams of them all, Real Madrid. That's kind of like Rocky Balboa knocking out Osama bin Laden. Or the Bad News Bears taking down the Yankees. Where underdog heroism is concerned, enough is never enough. Now if our man could just score a green card, he might be able to get home and see Grandma.

 
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