By Miki Turner
Special to Page 3
On the same day Anspaugh was approached in Beverly Hills to direct a biopic about the 1950 U.S. World Cup team, his longtime collaborator and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo was also discussing the same topic with former Indiana University soccer coach Jerry Yeagley in Bloomington, Ind.
Both learned that at one time, a group of soccer-playing friends from an Italian neighborhood in St. Louis called "The Hill," teamed up with other players from the East Coast and went on to upset heavily-favored England, 1-0, in the 1950 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.
The victory was so improbable it was indeed "The Game of Their Lives," the name of Anspaugh's film (opens in select theaters on Friday) and based on Geoffrey Douglas's book. The film stars Wes Bentley, Patrick Stewart, Gerard Butler, Gavin Rossdale, Jay Rodan and Zachery Bryan. Also, appearing are several surviving members of the 1950 team, including Frank Borghi, Harry Keough, Gino Pariani, John "Clarkie" Souza and Walter Bahr.
The members of the U.S. team had little or no professional experience and had only trained together for 10 days prior to their appearance at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. The odds against them were 500 to 1. The country was slow to provide them with proper uniforms and several bookies were reluctant to even accept bets on them.
In comparison, England, led by football legends Stan Mortensen and Billy Wright, played very well and the team thought competing in the World Cup was beneath them. They had previously skipped three World Cup events.
"They [England] felt they had nothing to prove," said Anspaugh.But even though England was 3-to-1 favorites to win the 1950 Cup, the Brits were forced to bury their pride on June 19 when a miracle shot by Philadelphia's Bahr, reportedly bounced off the head of Haitian-born New Yorker Joe Gatjeans and into the goal during the 37th minute of the game.
The shot wasn't exactly heard around the world, even though the Americans pulled off a significant feat. Some of the nation's newspapers thought the score was a misprint and failed to run the story. And, eight days after the team's victory, the U.S. declared war on Korea.
"These guys pretty much came home and went back to their everyday lives," Pizzo said. "There was very little fanfare for them. It was years before they were really celebrated."
Making the film, which was shot in just 49 days, however was no "field of dreams" for Anspaugh. Instead, it seemed more like an arena of obstacles. His initial concern about the story being a hard sell was a valid one as several investors turned him down. And the financier who came through only gave him a budget of about $13 million.
"We were faced with serious budget constraints that had been brought upon us," said Anspaugh during an exclusive interview at the Avalon Hotel. "It literally came down to [the financiers] telling us [that] 'this is all we have, take it or leave it.' I told Angelo we should leave it because there's no way we could do this movie. Angelo asked me to take a leap of faith because we would get more money once we started shooting. But we didn't."
"So after all that, my goal was to just make the best soccer movie ever. I wanted to make a film that the soccer community in this country would embrace and be proud of, that the guys from St. Louis would be proud of and a film that hopefully would be marketable around the globe because of the popularity of the sport."
Finding actors who could pull off convincing performances on the field was yet another challenge for Anspaugh. He held auditions all over the country and looked at more than 6,000 hopefuls during a nine-month period.
"It was ridiculously difficult," said Anspaugh, who didn't use any doubles or trick photography.
But Anspaugh lucked out when it came to casting Rossdale as Mortensen, England's powerful center-forward; and Butler as Borghi, the talented American goalie from St. Louis.
"He was beautiful," said Anspaugh, who hired three-time World Cup veteran Eric Wynalda to train the actors. "He was playing Stanley Mortensen and Gavin's style was just like his. He has an English style and you can't teach that." Rossdale, the lead singer of Bush, only appears in the final game scene.
"It's a great story," says Rossdale. "You can't help but get swept up in it. It has all the elements of a great sports movie and all the elements of a great film."
And apparently, the Scottish-born Butler actually could "bend it like Beckham" back in the day.
"I've played soccer my whole life," said Butler. "I don't play so much anymore, but that's all I ever did when I was growing up. I played every grade type, I used to play with three different teams at one time. I was training three nights a week and I played four games on the weekend. But I played center-forward. Frank Borghi, unfortunately, was the (expletive) goalkeeper. It was kind of infuriating watching everybody go and I'm standing there watching the ball!"
Borghi, Keough and Pariani made daily visits to the set when scenes were being shot in St. Louis.
"It was a beautiful thing because those guys would come on to the set every day and bring their families," Butler said. "Frank's kids and his grand kids were all extras in the movie. He's just the sweetest and most humble man you could ever ask for.""They all were just so overjoyed that the story was being told. These guys were the laughingstock of the World Cup. The U.S.A, this is 1950 and even today some people are still surprised when they hear the U.S.A is doing well in soccer. In 1950, people thought it was hilarious that they actually had a team that made it to the World Cup."
Unfortunately, Borghi's backstory along with those of the other principals in the film had to be cut due to budget limitations.
"I would have loved to tell those stories," Anspaugh said. "These were guys who pretty much just loved the game and they went to Brazil, leaving behind their wives, girlfriends and family and made history. There were so many individual stories to tell that even if we had the money, it would have been difficult to do."
However, Anspaugh is happy with the story and the film he was able to make despite all the obstacles.
"We knew of the dangers and tried to avoid a lot of the clichés that one faces when dealing with this genre," Anspaugh said. "But also, we knew we'd be doing something that had never been done before. To really do a serious film about the sport -- particularly in the period --was a unique opportunity."
Miki Turner covers the fusion of sports and entertainment for Page 3 in L.A. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.