“Football is not a matter of life and death,” the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said, “It’s much more important than that.” It’s a nice quote, and anyone who’s passionate about football knows that when you’re in the moment, watching the game, it feels like an absolute truth.
It’s certainly true for Pepik Hnátek (Miroslav Krobot), the fearsome and moribund coach of Slavoj Houslice, a Sunday league team showing few signs of life. Okresní přebor – Poslední zápas Pepika Hnátka is the feature-length prequel to the popular TV series, focusing on the dour and humourless Mr Hnátek, played with utter conviction by Krobot. If you want to get some idea of Hnátek’s coaching methods, imagine Breaking Bad‘s Walter White if he’d gone into football management rather than becoming a drug kingpin…
Hnátek is a profoundly unhappy man. His wife had an affair with the club’s president many years before, but they still co-habit, trapped in a loveless marriage. Football is the only thing that Hnátek lives for, but his harsh and unimaginative methods don’t bring out the best in his browbeaten, lacklustre team. His two key players are club captain Jirka Luňák (Ondřej Vetchý), who shamelessly sucks up to Hnátek and grasses up his teammates about how many beers they had the night before, just because he wants to be coach some day; and Jarda Kužel (David Novotný), the club’s most talented player, who suffers from laziness and a bad attitude.
Other players are introduced, but the rest of the team is thinly drawn and gets lost in a useless subplot involving a band of carnies who roll up in the village and park up beside the football pitch. This matters little because as the title suggests, this film is all about Hnátek.
When he’s taken ill and told by his doctor that his heart is barely functioning, he must wait for a suitable replacement. It could take weeks or months to find a donor, but all Hnátek cares about is if the operation will coincide with the winter break so he won’t miss any football. Worried that this serious ailment will stop him coaching, he decides to keep the illness secret from his wife and the team. Not that the team would miss him much – fed up with his tactics, they pull off a minor rebellion before he bullies them back into training, and they take advantage of his absence during one match to tinker with the tactics and pull off a rare victory. But can they get their act together and make a promotion push for the Regional League?
There’s an obvious set up here for the usual corny finale we get in so many sports movies, but thankfully Prušinovský and his co-writer Petr Kolečko choose to avoid the usual Hollywood sentimentality. Thanks to Krobot’s committed and soulful performance – you can see Hnátek’s many years of hurt through his gruff exterior – he’s a man you really care for by the end. Instead of going for the usual trite tear-jerking or fist-pumping finale, they choose a note of grim irony to despatch with the eponymous Mr Hnátek.
I approached the film with some caution because, despite its global popularity, the joys of football have proven notoriously difficult to capture in a movie. Perhaps it is because football films tend to focus on goals when much of the drama of a match is knowing full well that your team might not score at all. This elusive quality of goals is what non-believers don’t understand, and what football films usually get wrong – take for example the exciting but utterly ludicrous Escape to Victory, where allied POWs in WWII play a German team in a propaganda match, which ends up in a 4-4 draw (a match where Ossie Ardiles also bamboozles a German player with a rainbow flick, and Pele scores with a bicycle kick) – in short, the most exciting game you can ever imagine. Might that film have been more exciting – plus more realistic – if the Germans went one up early on through foul play, hacked and beat up the Allies for ninety minutes, then the good guys nicked an equalizer in injury time?
This still doesn’t quite explain why the sport doesn’t make the transition to screen very well. Baseball, which is also often regarded as “boring” by people who don’t care for it, managed to produce three great movies in the ’80s alone – The Natural, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams (plus honourable mentions Major League and Eight Men Out). In light of this, does Okresní přebor pull off an improbable victory and become that rarest of things – a great football movie?
Not exactly, although it does hit the woodwork a few times. It certainly gets the feel of pub football exactly right, down to the sluggish pace and the lackadaisical noise from the meagre support. If there’s a problem with the football stuff, it’s because there isn’t enough of it – I don’t need to see the extended highlights of a crunch match like we get in most footie movies, but we do go long stretches without a ball being kicked here. The whole carnival subplot adds absolutely nothing to the film, wasting time that could be used fleshing out the other members of the team or showing them in action occasionally.
The film also ends on a really weird note. Without giving too much away, the final reveal of what happens to Mr Hnatek makes the whole movie feel like the setup for a grim existential joke. I liked the movie enough overall to shrug away the feeling of disappointment that came with the conclusion, but I can see how some viewers might feel cheated by the way it’s wrapped up.
The ending reminded me of a passage from Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, where he describes seeing a man fall down dead in the street on the way to a match. Life is short and unpredictable, and the football fan’s existence is divided into nine months of the season and three excruciating summer months without any league action. Therefore there’s a good chance that when their time comes, it’ll happen during a season, and they’ll die not knowing whether their team wins the league, lifts the cup, survives a relegation scrap, or secures mid-table mediocrity for another year. It’s the tragedy of Pepik Hnátek that he’ll never get to see if his team makes it into the Regional League, and that they might just be better off without him anyway.