Michael Apted's new documentary, The Power Of The Game, is a film with a thesis: how football creates a global bond among countries. It also serves as an illuminating reflection of internal tensions within each country that plays the sport, even the United States. It's not a new observation, but it is one that Apted (best known for the The 7 Up series) has leavened with interviews with players and organisers from places as varied as South Africa, Iran, the US and Poland.
The earnest celebratory documentary has vivid local scenes which examine the particularities of the game in individual countries as they pay tribute to its global reach, yet it seems destined for TV rather than for the big screen. In the United States, The Power Of The Game is likely to appeal to the growing, but still limited, core of football fans in a rare country where it is not the dominant sport.
Beyond that its reach might be stronger, although as we move closer to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Apted's focus on events leading to the 2006 tournament in Germany also risks seeming dated.
Although there is plenty of match footage - sometimes balletic, sometimes violent, almost all of it from television broadcasts - Apted's inquiry probes the world behind the game. For South Africans, football - once all-white - is a measure of the country's emergence from decades of apartheid.
For Americans, football is viewed as the reverse application of globalism, the slow acceptance of a foreign sport, starting with school play and moving haltingly up to the professional level. (The US coach was fired after a poor World Cup performance.)
In Iran, football matches, from which women are barred as spectators, are beginning to see that ban crack. Jaffar Panahi's brilliant Offside has already looked at the women's spectator ban as a reflection of broader political circumstances.
The characters that Apted follows in the various strands of his stories are fascinating. An Iranian woman sports journalist, who was a protester for women's rights 20 years ago, won a small victory to be allowed to enter the stadium in Tehran. Argentinian organisers talk of saving players from lives of crime on the streets. Polish activists fight the strong tide of anti-immigrant racism.
Apted shifts deftly between dazzling match highlights and the eloquence of his interviewees. His film is almost always a pleasure to watch, but his subject turns out to be much larger than his documentary can accommodate. He succeeds in celebrating a sport that is already well-celebrated but is less successful at exploring the challenges that the sport faces.
The Power Of The Game also notes accurately that football can be a platform for racist demonstration, including some footage of the gruesome side of this problem. Yet there are barely any scenes of football hooliganism, a recurrent problem in Europe and South America and a mark against football culture. Nor does the film take on the ugly commercialisation of the game, which undermines any rhetoric of democratisation and puts World Cup matches (and qualifiers) beyond the means of average fans.