A few miles inland from the Los Angeles beachfront, there is a patch of uncut and dying grass. It is a playing field, the parameter marked unevenly and rather ineffectively with small orange plastic cones easily toppled by a persistent coastal breeze. The two teams in colored jerseys range in age from their 20s to well into their 50s. One team speaks exclusively in Russian. The other in a language that bears some vague similarity to English, because the players are in fact English, though predominantly working class and thus speaking entirely without the use of vowels.
A large suntanned Brit charges up the field. He receives the ball from his bald-headed teammate, taps it ahead, then fires a hard-arching shot into the net of the Russian goalie. A cheer erupts from the English side followed by indecipherable and likely fatalistic curses from the Russians. The stocky scorer, referred to by his gleeful teammates as the “Shepard’s Bush Goal Machine,” trots back to midfield enduring a round of sarcastic applause from his mates.
It’s a far cry from a youth spent altering the cultural landscape of the Western world playing guitar with the Sex Pistols, but Steve Jones seems quite content with his most recent achievement. He collapses on a wooden bench and receives congratulations from teammate Billy Duffy, guitarist for The Cult. A few of the English players, including their pugnacious manager, Ian Carrington, deliver a continuous commentary on the game from the sidelines, loudly making fun of both their team and the opposing players.
It’s all just another Sunday on the pitch for Dad’s Army, the slightly older and less serious auxiliary squad of the increasingly famous (and infamous) Hollywood United, a two-tier amateur team with a surprisingly big profile on the fields of L.A. these days. “Nobody likes us,” Carrington admits with a grin. “We’re like the Manchester United of America.”
The game he’s talking about is, of course, football — referred to as soccer here in the unwittingly ethnocentric United States. It is unquestionably the world’s premier sport and one that until recently has been nearly invisible in these parts. But all that could soon change, especially on the cusp of the 2006 World cup, to be held next year in Germany — and the pub-dwelling yob transplants of Hollywood United would have no small hand in the matter.
Carrington says he loved Los Angeles the minute he arrived in 1988 as a 22-year-old carpenter fleeing the incessant English rain. The warm Los Angeles sun seemed constant, the living surprisingly affordable and, perhaps most importantly, as he explains: “The girls liked me accent.”
Growing up back in England, Carrington had been football-obsessed. Like many new arrivals to L.A., he found work dressing the sets of music videos and TV commercials. He also began to kick around at the various pick-up games throughout the city, eventually settling into a Sunday game in Beverly Hills, appropriately referred to as “rock-and-roll football” due to the participation of Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy from The Cult, Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard and the “Shepard’s Bush Goal Machine” himself, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. When asked what it felt like to be playing in such a moneyed enclave with an assortment of rock stars, Carrington shrugs. “It felt normal. Everyone just got out there and put on their football boots, and that was it. We were all the same. But then I would explain it to people back in England, and I think it seemed pretty fucking weird to them.”
When Carrington and some of the lads from rock-and-roll football decided to join a local pub team called Hollywood United, the team “was rubbish,” he says. “Totally disorganized. So we decided to mutiny.” He quickly appointed himself the new manager, but when the squad tried to join a more organized league, their boisterous reputation preceded them. “They didn’t want to let us in because of all they’d heard about us,” he explains. “You know, getting sent off for fighting and all that. It was basically an English pub team — drinking first, football second.”
Around that time, Australian emigre Anthony LaPaglia was making it as an actor, but admits he was still somewhat heartbroken that his boyhood dream of playing professional soccer had ended back home. “When I finally quit, it was such a disappointing experience that I couldn’t even watch a game for years,” he says. “I just dropped out of it completely and dived into acting.”
LaPaglia now stars on the CBS show “Without a Trace” and is principal owner of a newly formed professional team back in Australia called Sydney FC, but his path back into the world of soccer was a hesitant one. After years in self-appointed exile, a chance conversation at a Hollywood sporting-goods store resulted in a short stint as a substitute goalkeeper for a local weekend team. And while his skills had noticeably diminished, an undeniable love for the game lingered. Then a few years later while giving him a haircut, LaPaglia’s barber mentioned that he knew some English guys who had a team and slipped him Carrington’s number. LaPaglia made the call and became the backup goalkeeper, assisted Carrington in team business and helped out with league fees when some of his more monetarily challenged teammates struggled. The team now plays in the highly competitive Olympic League, which LaPaglia and Carrington helped form in Santa Monica two years ago.
“It’s got nothing to do with show business,” LaPaglia says. “I never talk about my job when I’m out there. Just about football. They’re really funny guys, and we’re always taking the piss out of one another. Gradually we started to put together a pretty decent team.”
But it was the arrival of another player that seriously amplified Hollywood United’s profile. Vinnie Jones was an undeniable football star back in England. As a tough midfielder, he had played in the Premiership league with teams like Chelsea and Wimbledon, but he was perhaps most famous for a photograph taken of him squeezing superstar player Paul Gasgoine’s testicles during a game. Recently retired, Jones had turned his attention to acting and, in 1998, debuted in Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” as a mob enforcer. When he came to Los Angeles for a role in “Gone in 60 Seconds,” Steve Jones suggested he come out and play for Hollywood United. “Vinnie Jones changed things quite a bit,” Carrington says. “People started to get interested in the team then. When lads were here from England — ex-professionals — they would come by and play for us.”
THE OTHER NEW GUY
If any player seems emblematic of Hollywood United’s unique convergence of English football culture and unbridled Hollywood ambition, it is recent addition Andy Ansah. After retiring from playing professional football in Britain six years ago, Ansah says he knew he could never replace the adrenaline rush. “In England, football is life or death,” he says. “Being a professional footballer is a buzz you will never be able to get back when you stop. That’s why a lot of players struggle afterwards. What else do you do on a Saturday that’s going to give you the high of 40,000 people screaming for you? The answer is nothing. You need to train your brain to say, ‘That was a major part of my life, but now it’s gone.’ Now how can I create something new?”
So after retiring, Ansah landed work as an extra on TV shows, but soon utilized his previous job to choreograph and then produce the on-field play for a British TV show called “Dream Team,” about a fictional English football franchise. “I had always watched films with football in them, and it never looked real,” Ansah says. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way of improving it. It has to be shot in a way that conveys the energy of the game to people who don’t even like football so they can still understand the drama and beauty of the game.’ ”
Eventually hired to choreograph the soccer sequences for Walt Disney Pictures’ film “Goal!,” Ansah thus fulfilled a longstanding dream of coming to Hollywood. “I was just blown away by the place,” he says. “When I got to the hotel, U2 was on the floor above me and Jennifer Lopez was staying there as well. Then I was driving on Sunset and saw LL Cool J coming out of a restaurant. I thought, ‘So that’s how it is. You just walk around, and all the stars are there.’ ”
Ansah had seen Hollywood United featured in a documentary on Vinnie Jones. “When I arrived (in L.A.), I immediately told Ian (Carrington) and Danny (Cannon, director of ‘Goal!’) that I wanted to play,” he says. “My very first port of call was Hollywood United, and I haven’t missed an opportunity to play since.”
Working on the set of “Goal!,” a “Rocky”-like underdog tale set in the professional soccer world, Ansah found himself training Mexican soap star Kuno Becker, a virtual neophyte in the sport. The film’s other lead, American actor Alessandro Nivola, proved a slightly more experienced pupil, having played soccer in school and then around various adult leagues in Los Angeles. “I think they knew I could play a little before I was hired,” Nivola explains. “Word gets around when you play in these little games about town. I had played in a men’s league for an Italian team, then on the DreamWorks team and the BAFTA/L.A. team. The singer Robbie Williams also has a field at his house where people go and kick it around. There’s really a whole cultish following of the game here in L.A.”
Julian Stone, who manages the recently formed BAFTA/L.A. team, says that in some ways his club was formed in direct contrast to the ultra-competitive Hollywood United. “We tried to set it up as a social game of football,” he says. “Because I’m an actor, I can’t play in a game on Sunday when there’s a danger of me waking up on Monday with a black eye. This is more about a bunch of guys with varying degrees of knobby knees running around and still enjoying the game. That’s probably fairly different to a team like Hollywood United, who seem to have made a commitment to putting out the strongest possible team they can find.”
THE FILM OF THEIR LIVES
It took long-standing Hollywood United player (and helmer) Danny Cannon (“Judge Dredd,” “CSI”) a few games to recognize one of the team’s newer recruits last year. Fox Sports soccer announcer Allen Hopkins had been playing for an opposing team when Carrington invited him to a Hollywood United practice and eventually asked him to join the squad. It turned out Hopkins was also an associate producer on “Goal!,” which Cannon had recently been hired to direct. “Danny finally looked at me one day and said, ‘Wait a minute. Didn’t I just see you in a meeting earlier?’ ”
“Goal!” is actually the first installment of a soccer-themed trilogy, an ambitious project dreamed up by a first-time producer — successful English-media entrepreneur and Liverpool fan Mike Jefferies — along with his creative partner, Matt Barrelle, who together launched Milkshake Films after realizing the world of football was long overdue for a big feature film. “Mainly because it hadn’t been done before and it’s the biggest form of content on television bar none,” Jefferies explains.
For Cannon, a native Londoner and admitted soccer fanatic, helming “Goal!” was a dream assignment. With the cooperation of both FIFA (Federation Intl. Football Assn.), the governing body of soccer worldwide, as well as the elite English Premiership league, Jefferies and company had unparalleled access to the world’s superstar players and the fevered atmosphere within its great stadiums.
“Even when Oliver Stone did ‘Any Given Sunday,’ he didn’t have access to the NFL,” Cannon says. “Watching that film, I never quite got over what a make-believe world we were in, even though the film was excellent.”
Many in America might view a big-budget film based around a still-emerging sport like soccer as a risky proposition for the Stateside market. German-born director Lexi Alexander, who recently helmed “Green Street Hooligans” about the world of English soccer hooligans, disagrees. “When you say people won’t get it, it’s an insult to the audience,” she says. “If you ask whether films like mine and ‘Goal!’ can translate, well, a few years ago a little film came out called ‘Bend It Like Beckham.’ I believe you can set a film in any sport if the human story is there.”
PLAYING THE FIELD
A few weeks after Hollywood United’s Sunday auxiliary, Dad’s Army, defeated the Russians in a weed-strewn schoolyard, Ansah, LaPaglia and Carrington stroll onto a perfectly maintained field with the rest of the A-squad. This is an entirely different beast than the slightly older and infirm gents of the Sunday team. Through reputation and word of mouth, the squad has evolved into something of a weekend-league juggernaut. With the league title on the line this day, the experienced LaPaglia will only play the first half, acknowledging his own limitations as the result of age and a recent soccer-related hip-replacement surgery. “The game is the great equalizer,” LaPaglia says. “No matter how rich or how connected you are, it makes no difference. If the other players feel like I’m not the best person for the job, then they put in someone else. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
For the other teams, the obvious thrill of trying one’s skill against some recently retired professionals can quickly morph into something resembling seething resentment. Hollywood United’s on-field success and off-field swagger haven’t exactly endeared them to the competition. Sure enough, as the second half of the match starts, an opposing player goes berserk, shrieks something in Spanish and kicks a Hollywood United player square in the back. The result is the seemingly customary mid-game melee. Punches and kicks are thrown in the air, tempers eventually cool, and the match resumes with Hollywood United assuming a commanding, and not too unexpected, lead.
When victory seems all but assured, Carrington finally subs himself into the game. He excitedly trots out across the field and, almost immediately, the referee’s whistle sounds. Carrington reappears on the sideline, grinning mischievously, and announces that he has just been ejected. His teammates applaud and pat him on the back. After the game, the players get dressed and head off to a local pub to celebrate the win. For all of Hollywood United’s ambitions on the field, what really motivates the members is both an undeniable love for the sport and finding this kind of friendship, rare in a place like Hollywood.