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Goal! movie franchise producer, Mike Jefferies, talks Real Madrid, Zidane, Beckham, Liverpool and the craziest Hollywood football experience he ever had.

When did you first get the idea to make a movie about football?

I had moved from England to Los Angeles in 1999 and spent a couple of years just fucking around. I’d been a businessman wearing suits and ties up until when I moved to LA after selling my media company to the Daily Mail. I then decided to make up for lost time and see what happened at night. So I literally inverted my lifestyle: I was now going out to nightclubs and bars every night, chasing chicks around the city which was not very difficult. Very fortunately, I didn’t need to work.

Then, one night I had a conversation with [an American actress/singer] Brittany Murphy at a dinner. She was like, ‘What do you do, Mike?’ ‘Nothing’. ‘Come on, nobody does nothing. Surely you do something’. And I replied, ‘No! I just hang out. But yeah, I guess I am getting a bit bored. Maybe I should do something.’ But I didn’t want to go back to being a businessman, so she said, ‘Well, why don’t you become a movie producer?’ I replied, ‘What the fuck is a movie producer? Are you kidding? I’m just a kid from Liverpool, what do I know about making movies?’ I had always loved movies but it seemed like the craziest idea.

So, we were sitting around a table with everyone trying to explain to me what movie producers did but nobody could actually put a finger on it. Eventually Brittany said, ‘You’re an entrepreneur and producer tend to be entrepreneurs in the movie industry. They’re the guys who come up with an idea, or buy an idea, buy a script and then scale it up, initiate monetization, hire everyone and all of that. It’s like building a company’. And I was like, ‘Oh! I get it now!’

So, the next day I drove to Barnes & Noble, parked the car in front of the store and caught the eye of a cashier. ‘Can you tell me where the section of books is on how to become a movie producer?’ I ask her. She flirts, ‘Oh! Are you a film producer?’ I’m like, ‘No… that’s why I’m asking you where I can find a book on how to become one.’ ‘They’re over there… so are you gonna become a film producer?’

Anyway, the next day I woke up with her and her girlfriend and was like, ‘This never happened to me when I was in publishing. There’s clearly something in this film producer lark.’ So I read all the books and met everyone I could, and quickly worked out that any script that ever arrived on my desk to look at as a potential investment opportunity had probably been ‘passed’ on by anybody who knew what they were doing. I had no experience. All the big and even small studios would have seen those scripts before me.

That’s when you decided to write one yourself?

Well, for a long time, I was wondering what to do. I’ve always been a writer, I’d been a business journalist for many years which was how I’d developed my company. So yeah, I started experimenting with writing a script myself. And then I went to Dortmund to watch Liverpool play against Alavés in the UEFA Cup final in 2001. As a Liverpool fan, I nearly had a heart attack four times that night. After the game, people around the stadium were selling those really garish, tasteless red shirts with all the cups we won that year. I bought one and flew back to the Hotel du Cap in Antibes where I was doing intensive research on the film industry.

It was the second week of Cannes Festival so there was a close little community that gathered around the pool every day. So, I came down from my bedroom to the pool area the next morning, probably still drunk, wearing this garish red ‘Treble Winners’ shirt while everyone else was wearing creams and beige linens. And as I walked in I suddenly heard a clap, then another, and before I knew it, everyone – the waiters and the guests – were clapping. Not clapping me, obviously, but Liverpool’s astonishing 5-4 victory. And that was like this ‘Eureka!’ moment, the lights literally went on. ‘Football! Of course. It’s never been done properly.’

What happened when you went back to LA?

Through mutual contacts, I got in touch with Oliver Stone and we started hanging out and I was picking his brain about his experience of making Any Given Sunday. His main counsel to me was, ‘Whatever you do Mike, make sure you get on side with the football industry’. His biggest regret was getting off side with the NFL and had to make up fictitious teams. It was the Miami Sharks instead of Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys were Dallas Knights. ‘You don’t want to do that,’ he said. ‘Go to the football world and present this as an opportunity for them. But be very humble.’

So, my idea was to ask FIFA for the necessary access we would need in return for the exposure that the films would give to the game, competitions, clubs and FIFA in emerging markets like North America and Asia. A non-monetary quid pro quo. And that was probably the best advice I ever got from anybody. I then started reaching out to companies like Adidas, Reebok and Nike, the biggest football clubs, and of course FIFA. And it all sort of snowballed from there. We were able to make deals with Adidas, FIFA, Newcastle United, Real Madrid, and some of the biggest brands in the world.

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Why do you think no one had ever tried to make a big Hollywood football movie before you?

Well, it’s a bit like, why was water not sold in bottles before? Amazon and Netflix are doing behind-the-scenes shows with Juventus and Manchester City now and those kind of TV shows are fantastic. But you know, it’s really hard to do a fictitious, compelling, believable, dramatic movie about sport. Football especially. Fans these days are incredibly spoiled.

When I was growing up, there were maybe two games a year on television. The FA Cup final and the England-Scotland games that took place every May. And the World Cups of course. That was it. But nowadays we get so much football on TV and so much drama every week. I mean, I’m sure if you and I sat here and talked about the 10 most astonishing moments in football in the last 12 months, we would have an amazing list. To come up with a fictitious movie that competes with that is a real challenge.

I watched the Borg–McEnroe film the other night about the final in 1980 when Borg beat McEnroe to win his fifth title. It was a very well-made film but when you try and immerse yourself into the action it just doesn’t work as well as watching the actual game, live. That’s why most sports films tend to be biopics. Coming up with something fictitious is incredibly hard and risky. I’ve been talking to all the studios here in LA recently about financing another soccer movie. And I gotta tell you, there’s not much appetite. Even 20th Century Fox and Universal whose parent companies both invest enormous monies in televising European soccer in the USA are like, ‘Meh’. And they would both be obviously able to do gigantic cross-promotions, but they’re still like, ‘Meh’. It’s tough, man.

When did you realise that Goal! was, in fact, happening?

I had been banging away on the door of Adidas for about 12 months – in Portland, Amsterdam, Herzogenaurach – slowly working my way up the levels of management all of who would initially say, ‘No, thanks’. And then I was eventually introduced to Sepp Blatter in Paris. It was like a scene from The Godfather, being taken into a private hushed meeting room in the bowels of Hotel Bristol. So, I’m sitting there waiting, made to feel like a bona fide world leader was about to come in and give me an audience. And then finally in strolls Sepp Blatter. It felt a bit like I was meeting the Pope meets Robert Mugabe meets Vito Corleone. A most surreal moment.

I just needed him to get FIFA to endorse us, to encourage Adidas to participate and agree that we would not have to pay for any licensing or trademarks or anything like that. In return, they were just making a bet that we would be successful and generate lots of incremental new fans for the game in emerging markets and give massive exposure to football brands and properties etc. Most of the business groundwork had already been done before this meeting but we still had to sit down and have a cup of tea so that he could see for himself that I was a fairly decent bloke and not just some jumped-up opportunistic charlatan.

What was Sepp Blatter like in real life?

Well, there were some surreal moments. Of course, now we know how this whole FIFA thing has worked. He behaved like some fascist dictator from the 20th century. I was kind of lucky – and I’m saying this with an ironic smile on my face – to have ‘backstage access’ for a few years as we were making these movies. And my god, only the tip of the iceberg has probably come out so far. The things I saw – and I met and sometimes hung out with all the main culprits like Valcke, Blazer, Champagne, Linsi, Warner etc – I’m sure more stories will come out. What they were doing. It was mind-blowing. ‘Should they be doing that? Is that even legal?’ You couldn’t make it up.

The craziest meeting you’ve had while putting the whole thing together?

I had one particularly amazing day thanks to my close friend, José Ángel Sánchez, who would go on to become the CEO of Real Madrid but back then he was just the marketing manager. After we made a deal to make Goal! 2 with Real Madrid he was often calling me to say, ‘Be here’ and ‘Be there’. One morning, he called me and said, ‘Can you be at the Madrid airport this afternoon?’

All right, so I jump on a plane, get picked up by a Real Madrid driver and am soon sitting in a hotel room on my own, waiting, thinking, ‘What the fuck?’ Then they tell me that I’m going to meet some of the players to explain to them what the movie is all about. Eventually the door opens and in walks David Beckham and his manager Terry Byrne. And David was just the nicest guy imaginable. I spent about 45 minutes explaining to him what we were going to do and also mentioned Goal! 1 which we were about to start shooting.

Wait, so you made a deal with Real Madrid to make Goal! 2 before you had even started shooting Goal! 1?

Yeah, absolutely. So, here we were, talking with David, and I went, ‘By the way, would you like to do a cameo in Goal! 1?’ And he was like, ‘Why not? Sounds really interesting!’ At some point he asked, ‘Who else are you seeing today?’ But I still had no idea. So, David leaves and I then hear a Frenchman talking. And in walks Zinedine Zidane with his agent. He shakes my hand and sits down and I’m like, ‘This is not happening. This is not happening.’

Again, we spend about 45 minutes talking about the movie and then I go, ‘By the way, would you like to do a cameo in Goal! 1?’ And he’s like, ‘Is David in?’ I reply, ‘Yeah, David’s in!’ So he says, ‘OK, sounds good.’

Then one more player comes in: Raúl. And he is just lovely. And funny. He’s like, ‘Hollywood? Of course! I’m in.’ So now I suddenly have a deal with Beckham, Zidane and Raúl to make cameos in Goal! 1. What a day.

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What was it like to film that bar scene for Goal! 1 with Raúl, Zidane and Beckham?

Difficult. And stressful. David was already in London while Raúl and Zidane were in Madrid so we sent a jet to bring them over to London. Of course, Raúl and Zidane didn’t really understand how filming worked, or how things were scheduled. Naturally, they assumed they would just show up, shoot their scene first because they had arrived first, and then leave. But we had actually booked them for the whole day and kept the jet waiting to take them back to Madrid in the evening.

But David was quite late, so Zidane and Raúl started to become a little bit irritated. Not in a primadonna way. We had scheduled to shoot David’s scene with Kuno Becker who played Santiago Muñez first. To make things worse, David had a dialogue with Kuno. But when he arrived, we quickly identified that he had an old version of the script that he had been learning the whole time. Of course, Becks sent his agents and managers into a complete panic.

Thankfully, everybody was cool and it all went very well. But unfortunately, it meant there was a big delay in the filming day, so Raúl and Zidane were just sitting in the green room for seemingly endless hours, obviously becoming really bored. Whenever I see David and Raúl we now laugh about it but it was a little tense. When you’re actually interacting with a live, organic, real entity, things and curveballs can happen which you can’t control. You know, there were some moments of utter sheer and utter chaos and consternation.

Like what?

Well, for example, when we were filming Goal! 2 with Real Madrid, they went through a bad sequence of losing games. And of course, the mischievous local media were all over the club, saying that the movie guys were distracting the players and all of that.

I can’t remember the number of games without a win but it was a lot, and then Ronaldinho went and scored three goals in El Clásico at the Bernabéu. It was the worst timing possible for us. That Clásico was supposed to be a big sequence in the movie. We just needed one goal from Real Madrid so we could fake two or three more later as long as we got the crowd erupting for one Real goal. But instead, they were humiliated.

Eventually, we ended up making that game the beginning of the movie, positioning it as Real Madrid deep in shit, needing a solution to get them out of a gigantic hole. The answer was them swapping Muñez with Michael Owen going to Newcastle. So, that actually worked out very well for us.

And when Real played Arsenal in the Champions League quarter-final, we again just needed one goal from them. But they lost 1-0! We were literally almost ready to shoot ourselves. So, at the end of Goal! 2, when Real Madrid are playing Arsenal, we used the crowd footage we’d shot from the Valencia game and used special effects to change LaLiga banners to Champions League ones. That’s the kind of stuff that happens when you work with a real team during a real season.

In the first Goal!, Muñez played for Newcastle. Why Newcastle? Why did you pick this particular club?

Well, I had a gun. And I was putting bullets into it. And I was literally about to shoot myself when I had an out-of-the-blue phone call from the late, great chairman of Newcastle United, Freddy Shepherd. That’s not completely true but hopefully the metaphor makes sense. I’ll explain.

Liverpool were the first club I had reached out to. I’d been a Liverpool fan since I was a little boy growing up just outside of Johannesburg.

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So, what happened when you presented the idea of Goal! to Liverpool?

When I went and met Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry, he was just not interested. I was completely heartbroken. Because geographically I was in the same area, the following day I had a meeting with Manchester United, which was a kind of backup plan. And, in absolute contrast, they were like, ‘Wow, this is great. Yes. Let’s do this, it’s a no-brainer.’ They got it in five seconds. I had a PowerPoint presentation with me but they were just like, ‘Shut your laptop, we get it. How do we make this happen?’

I spent another day with all of the United executives in Beverly Hills. They were smart, charming and really knew what they were doing. We went to the Coliseum where the team was training before playing the Mexican team, América. On the one hand, it was very exciting to think about making the movie with a huge brand like Manchester United. But on the other, being a Scouser, I was dying inside.

I remember driving home after a day most United fans would give one testicle for thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to go back to Liverpool.’ And I’ve been involved in right some nasty games against United, we hated them. It’s like a religion.

At that moment, completely out of the blue, I had a phone call. ‘Hello, is this Mike Jefferies?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, this is Freddy Shepherd from Newcastle. We understand that you’re talking to Manchester United but we would prefer Newcastle to be the club in your movie. Would you be up for talking to us about it?’ ‘Yeah’, I said. ‘But how do I know you are who you say you are? You could be anybody!’ He said, ‘Listen. I’m in Las Vegas at the moment with my partner Douglas Hall. If we fly from Vegas and meet you tonight at Pretty Woman hotel, the Beverly Wilshire, you’ll see that we’re real.’ And I’m like, ‘Ok. I’ll be there at eight o’clock tonight.’

I was still not sure if they were real but I went down to the Beverly Wilshire hotel, parked my car, walked in and met these two guys at the bar who could only ever have been from Newcastle. The Toon. Two red-faced, big, wonderful, funny, lovable, kind guys.

How quickly did you manage to make a deal with these guys?

We ended up spending the whole chatting football and drinking until the wee hours. We wanted to continue the discussion the next day but they didn’t want to get spotted and end up in the English tabloids. So they spent the whole day in my house in Beverly Hills just watching football and hanging out by the pool whilst I had to go to watch Manchester United play América at the LA Coliseum, now thinking, ‘Haha!’

Eventually, after hanging out with Newcastle guys for four days, we made a deal. And part of that deal was that they would help Blatter bring Adidas on board.

Is it true that the deal between Goal! and Adidas is still the biggest one of its kind?

Yeah, it is still the biggest deal between a brand and a movie. Ever. By far. Before Goal!, it was the deal between Coca-Cola and the Matrix. Coke created a green Powerade drink for the movie and the Matrix producers got paid $4 million for that. And you know what? When I first talked to Nike, they offered us free shoes. Seriously. I went to meeting and they told me, ‘We’ll give you free shoes.’

The thing is, I didn’t know any better. It just thought, you know, these three Goal! movies are going to cost about $50 million to produce. So, let’s ask Adidas for it all. I was an industry outsider and so I didn’t have any fear. I did a little research and saw that Adidas and Nike were spending, say, $2 million to make a commercial. And then they would spend another few million to broadcast it. Maybe more.

So I thought, ‘We’re going to make three movies here. Each one 90 minutes long. We’re going to feature Newcastle in the first one, an Adidas property, then Real Madrid or AC Milan in the second one, more Adidas properties and then we’ll think about Goal! 3 later’. Movies tend to be monetised for 15 years, and we could legitimately feature and expose all of Adidas’ brands in the films. So when Santi’s playing football, he’s wearing the three stripes. When he’s not playing football, he’s wearing casual Adidas gear. Or Y3. They can be in every frame of the movie. And let’s say he’s naked, in a love scene, even then we could tattoo the three stripes onto his ass.

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If you’re trying to make a movie featuring Real Madrid or Newcastle, you can do that kind of product placement on steroids. You have to do it – it’s completely legitimate. So my proposition to Adidas chairman Herbert Hainer was: ‘This is an opportunity to leverage your existing investments in football’. It took a good while, many months, but we were eventually able to make that $50 million deal with Adidas. And they’ve gotten so much exposure and return on investment over the past dozen years that it was probably up there amongst the best money they’ve ever spent.

In 2005, the whole crew of Goal! 2 went on a pre-season tour with Real Madrid. What was it like?

They were playing in China and Japan so we registered Alessandro Nivola who played Gavin Harris as one of the players. Alessandro, as well as being a great actor and a great person, is also, annoyingly, a great footballer, too. We agreed with Florentino Pérez, José Ángel Sánchez and the coach, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, that Alessandro was going to be with the team for the whole tour. They said, ‘Look, you can do it on one condition. He has to commit to it. He cannot leave the team at all. He cannot come and go. If he’s in then he’s in.’

So he stayed on the same floor in the hotel with the players, had all his meals with them, wore the same kit as them every day, and went to training with them everyday. He could immerse himself into this world but he couldn’t leave.

Alessandro literally became a Real Madrid player for 14 days. I’ve never seen a guy smile like he did. I remember waiting for the players to come off the plane from China and filming the whole thing at Narita airport. There were thousands and thousands of Japanese girls. And, of course, just like in this magic moment in the movie, the doors open, Pérez walks out first, some of the directors follow him, and then boom: Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Luís Figo, and then Gavin Harris. 

At some point, they all literally forgot he was not a player. I mean, there were a couple of games in Japan when he even went out on the pitch before of the games, kicked a ball around with the first team, played rondos, and then went to sit on the bench.

What was your best personal experience in Japan?

I remember asking Real Madrid to give me two players because we needed to film them shopping with Alessandro. Just a quick shot. Luxemburgo was like, ‘Okay, but you have one hour. If you don’t have them back in one hour, never speak to me again.’ We ended up taking Guti and Iker Casillas and took them to the Ginza, the most expensive area of the city.

We had Alessandro walking down the street with Guti and Casillas and the crowd started to come. So we had to be very quick. Then we went to the Louis Vuitton store and told Guti and Casillas to pick one item each as a reward for hanging out with us and filming. Guess what, these funny bastards were so clever that they found the most expensive piece of luggage, some $30,000 suitcase or something.

Eventually, when we got back into a car, the place had gone completely crazy like The Beatles had arrived. As we were trying to get Guti and Casillas back to the hotel and the clocks were ticking, I started getting really worried for my balls. Fortunately, we made it back to the hotel with like 30 seconds to spare.

Was Luxemburgo alright with you and the cast hanging out with the team all the time?

The funny thing was, at the end of our time in Japan, I sat next to him on the bus after the last game on our way back to the hotel. He was obviously relaxed now because the matches were over so he looked at me and said, ‘You know what, Mike, you’re not so bad.’ ‘Well, thanks!’ And then he goes, ‘And it wasn’t such a bad experience. It’s been really nice meeting you. Maybe one day I’m going to see you again.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay?’

That’s when I realized that Real Madrid hadn’t told him that we were not just making the movie during the preseason tour in Japan. We were actually coming to Madrid for three months when the La iga season started. They just hadn’t told him. 

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Many would say that all of the Goal! movies had too many clichés. Do you regret going in that direction?

What you’re really saying is that in some places, it’s cheesy, right? And if so, my response is that’s fantastic. Bring on a nice big piece of gorgonzola and a nice piece of Parmigiano. It’s a sports movie. You watch it and you don’t expect to see something from Lars von Trier or Christopher Nolan. You’re coming with your popcorn to see the movie about footballers. Guess what, the hero is always going to score the last minute winner. It’s not an Oscar-winning movie but I’m immensely proud of it.

Do you still get tweets and emails from Goal! fans?

Sure. For example, once I was a doing a research for a movie set in the world of sumo wrestling, and so I was in Japan trying to get backstage to meet some wrestlers. At the time, the number one wrestler in the world was Asashoryu,  from Mongolia. The greatest sumo wrestler that ever lived. I’m in Tokyo and I’m telling my friends there that I’m going to Nagoya to meet this Asashoryu. And they’re all like, ‘Are you kidding? You’re not even getting past security. You’re not going to meet any wrestler, they hate westerners.’

Well, okay. I went to Nagoya, found the shop where they made sumo wrestling gear and met the master tailor who makes robes and stuff. I explained who I was and what I was trying to do, and he was like, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll help you.’ And sure enough, soon I am at the venue standing with fucking sumo groupies, you couldn’t make that up. And in comes the tailor. He’s known to everybody so he gets me backstage where all the wrestlers are and they’re all getting their hair waxed, doing a top knot and everything. And he takes me straight up to the world champion, Asashoryu who is sitting there like the Christ of sumo.

I have a DVD of Goal! in Japanese with me that I have bought in Shibuya so I see this guy looking at me, and he’s huge, hundreds of pounds, and then he notices the DVD and goes, ‘Oooooohhh, Santiago!’ And he’s looking at this DVD like it’s the most beautiful woman in the world. ‘Santiago. My story.’ He snatches the DVD, puts his arm around me, I’m almost sitting on his knees – he’s so huge. ‘I came from Mongolia to Japan. Like Santiago – from Los Angeles to Newcastle. Same story.’

Finally, something we all need to know: how good is Kuno Becker at football?

Well, the one challenge that we’ve had …

Please say that he can’t play at all. Just say this.

I’m not going to comment. Well, let’s say Brad Pitt is making a movie about Alexander the Great. Now, no one expects Brad to be the greatest guy ever riding a horse or the greatest swordsman. But it’s Hollywood so you expect someone else to figure out how to do it. Brad can do as much as he can to practice but it’s about the magic of Hollywood.

Kuno is an actor and not a footballer, let’s put it like that. But nowadays technology is so insane that we can take an actor and put him in a studio surrounded by a green screen to shoot him for a few hours. And then we can bring in Cristiano Ronaldo to do the same thing, load this into our computers, then take our cameras and shoot a match. At the end, we could take the footage of Cristiano throughout the whole game and put Kuno’s face on Ronaldo. Trust me, you wouldn’t know the difference. That’s how good technology is today.

In 2005 and 2006, it was much harder to shoot scenes like this. We were at the stadium night after night after night, freezing our asses off. David Beckham would be running down the wing at night and crossing the ball hoping that Kuno would be at the end of it. A hundred times in a row he would not be at the end of it. But David, bless him, would put the ball on the same spot every single time. You don’t have to do that anymore. It’s much easier to make a football movie now. And I’m probably going to do it. 

By Vitaly Suvorov