The Damned United, which opens today locally, features Michael Sheen as Leeds United soccer coach Brian Clough, a famous coach in England who has a disastrous, but entertaining, run in charge of a team he clearly despised. Sheen and United director Tom Hooper talked to Mike Ryan about why soccer isn’t popular in the United States and why including a scene with Muhammad Ali calling out Clough was so necessary.
As far as marketing this film in the United States: How important do you think that scene with Muhammad Ali is? When I first saw the trailer, I knew very little about Brian Clough, but when I saw Muhammad Ali, I thought, “Oh, Muhammad Ali’s talking about him? He must be someone important.”
Tom Hooper: I think it’s incredibly important. If an American icon like that’s taking notice, he’s a man to be taken notice of. And also it’s nice because [Clough’s] our answer to Muhammad Ali, he’s kind of the closest I can think of. There’s something kind of competitive about that with Muhammad Ali; he’s sort of jealous of his big mouth. The tough thing for me is, I don’t want people to look at it and go, “Football is not for me,” and we have to keep plugging the fact it’s a film that’s about a human drama. It’s about the big themes of ego and ambition and hubris and self-destruction. And it can be enjoyed without prior knowledge.
Do you think the popularity of soccer will explode in the U.S. soon? ESPN is covering the Premier League. The most popular American sports columnist, Bill Simmons, is writing about soccer. The Confederations Cup got extremely good ratings in the U.S. I think Americans just want to see the best players in the world. That’s why they don’t get onboard with the MLS.
Michael Sheen: I think the fundamental problem with football/soccer really taking off here is that sports, national sports, sports that really take off in a country, are entwined with the cultural history of that country. So watching that fantastic documentary series Ken Burns did about baseball is really the history of America. That’s why sports get a grip on a country. This film, for instance, watching this film in Britain, if you’re a football fan and you watch the footage of Leeds and Liverpool, it’s more than just a game. You go right back to how old you were and where you were and what was going on. It’s part of the fabric of your life and your cultural life in the country. Trying to get another sport? You’ve already got your sports. Baseball does that. American football, basketball, hockey in Canada. How can another sport come in that has no cultural or social baggage or history or tradition?
I do think Americans like the worldwide aspect of it, though.
Michael Sheen: Yeah, and it’s a bonding thing between other countries. Absolutely it [is]. But it would be very difficult for it to take away. It’s a great game, but it would be very difficult, I think. In Britain, football and cricket have really taken a grip on the nation, and baseball seems to do it here. I’ve gotten very into baseball myself since being here, but it will always be another country to me.