A city spurned. A dream born. A brothergood forged. Owen takes a look at the documentary Sons of Ben: The Movie to see how a group of die-hard American soccer fans embarked on a mad quest to bring a professional soccer franchise to their city.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Where did you grow up? I ask because here in the UK, it most likely determines the football team you support (unless you’re a Manchester United fan, in which case you could be a “glory hunter” from practically anywhere from London to Thailand – basically anywhere except the North West, fnar fnar.)
I was born and raised in the Black Country, surrounded by a veritable plethora of professional teams like West Bromwich Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa and Birmingham City who were all within a 15 mile radius of my home (two of which were within an hours walk) and each with over 100 years of history. Let’s not forget the lower league local teams too, such as Kidderminster Harriers, Walsall, Stourbridge and Halesowen Town. Hell, I could have tripped down the stairs and landed at the gates to Tividale FC, a club over 60 years old with a 200 seater stadium that Google estimates is just 0.3 miles door-to-door.
Love it or hate it, football is ingrained in the United Kingdom’s culture. It’s a sport that we made professional when our cricketers were bored during the winter season some 150 years ago. There are perhaps only two historical dates in our country’s past that every British citizen knows off by heart: 1066 and the battle of Hastings and 1966, the year England won the FIFA World Cup on home soil. Have we ever mentioned that before? I don’t think we ever talk about it these days. We’re very humble about it.
The point I’m making is that even people here who can’t stand football know the relevance of that summer nearly fifty years ago. It’s so well known because football is so connected to our identity. There are few conversations more satisfying than those that take place in the pub, pint in hand, mulling over the latest results or football news.
But what happens when you’re a fan of the beautiful game in a country where football is not even close to being in the top three most popular sports on the continent, never mind without half a dozen teams a stones throw from your bedroom window? Well, if you’re in Philadelphia, then of course the only viable solution is to set up a supporters club called the Sons of Ben for a team that doesn’t yet exist. That’s exactly what Bryan James, Andrew Dillon, and David Flagler did in January 2007 hoping that one day a Major League Soccer franchise would open in their beloved home town.
Director Jeffrey C. Bell tells the entire unbelievable story of this passionate community of soccer fans coming together to support a non-existent team, from its humble beginnings as a conversation at a bar, through to its surprising conclusion. For some of us here in Europe who might not follow the league that closely, when we think of the MLS, we think of Beckham and Keane at LA Galaxy, or Lampard and Pirlo at New York City, so I will refrain from spoiling whether or not this motivated group of individuals went on to realise their dream. Just in case!
Over the course of the relatively tight 75 minutes, we learn how a sport like this can bring people together from all kinds of different backgrounds. By the time we’re introduced to Nick Sakiewicz, a business executive with a genuine affection for soccer, the scope of the project begins to hit home. You share the optimism of these guys; their longing to create a team of their own. It’s in part due to Bell’s direction. There’s an overwhelming sense of pride in these fans and you, as the viewer, are constantly willing them to succeed. When tears are shed by the (self-dubbed) Negadelphians suffering set-back after set-back, you can’t help but share in their misery. Equally, their triumphs are greeted with a huge smile.
Sons of Ben: The Movie does capture a story greater than just the hopeful formation of a soccer team. Unfortunately parallels can be drawn to controversial FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s promise of the World Cup rejuvenating entire regions (we only have to look at the $270m parking lot in Manaus to see how wrong he could be), so too do we see how promises are made by high ranking officials in Philadelphia for investment in the run down small town of Chester on the outskirts of the city. Chester, a poverty stricken, crime-ridden ghost town that was once a thriving community back when former resident the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was there, it is an area crying out for enhancement. Tax-payer money being invested in a football team subsequently leading to a revitalisation of the surrounding area is an all too familiar dubious promise that rarely comes to fruition. There’s little more than anecdotal evidence on display here to suggest that beyond the honourable charity work conducted by the Sons of Ben – and the personal investments that they have made through their donations – that not a huge amount of what was promised has actually been accomplished. What has been created in Chester feels like a small token gesture rather than a platform from which the area can progress.
However, given the short run time and nature of the documentary, admittedly it would be out of key for Sons of Ben: the Movie to veer off into a socio-political commentary. With events being told in retrospect by various talking heads, it has the air of a fascinating story being recounted by mates rather than possessing the gravitas of a heavy, investigative documentary. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining story with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Most of all, it shows that across the pond, there are still die hard football fans out there.
The commitment to turning up at MLS games for other teams in full Sons of Ben colours, occupying a section of the support, chanting ‘Philadelphia’ louder than the home crowd until somebody somewhere with power and influence takes notice, it’s a highly commendable attitude. The perseverance to commit to that level of support, often at personal expense, is hugely impressive. The fact that their goal was to achieve 100 fans within one year of the group’s inception, yet ending up with over 1,500 members for their movement, it goes to show how within all of us, there’s a desire to belong, to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. All I know is, I know which team I’m picking the next time I boot up a game of FIFA.
You can purchase Sons of Ben: The Movie on DVD directly from their website. They have other outlets such as streaming and digital download planned to happen soon so keep an eye on their Twitter and Facebook pages for updates. In the meantime, check out the trailer below:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqAFIAHox6w]