He shoots, he writes a score

He shoots, he writes a score

Pelé and Ronaldo have inspired a new opera, its co-creator Phil Porter tells Richard Morrison

We have had operas, ballets and concert works about football before. Last November, for instance, an audience of Arsenal fans (yours truly included) gathered in the Barbican to experience Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs, which set to suitably pulsating orchestral music the last 25 minutes of Arsenal’s historic 1989 last-gasp win against Liverpool.

That joined such football-fixated classics as Shostakovich’s 1929 ballet The Golden Age (about a valiant Soviet team’s match against cheating western capitalist opponents), the piano concerto that Michael Nyman wrote as a somewhat bizarre homage to his beloved Queen’s Park Rangers, and James MacMillan’s violent orchestral piece The Berserking, written in a fury after watching his adored Celtic self destruct in a European Cup tie. “I can safely say,” MacMillan later revealed, “that in the entire history of music I am the only composer to write a piece inspired by the away goals rule.”

However, a new opera jointly commissioned by Sky Arts and the enterprising Grange Park Opera in Surrey promises to take a much sterner look at the “beautiful game”. Gods of the Game is written by the playwright Phil Porter with music supplied by a “five-a-side” team of youngish British composers led by Julian Philips (plus borrowings from such rising talents as Verdi, Puccini and Mozart). It tackles nothing less than corruption in high places as nations vie to host a future World Cup.

The bungs fly faster than a Ronaldinho free kick; the skulduggery is as blatant as Maradona’s notorious “hand of God” goal against England. In fact the opera’s plot sounds like the very antithesis of that celebrated endorsement of the game by Albert Camus, the philosopher and goalkeeper: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” That Gods of the Game is being premiered (and screened by Sky) just a few weeks before the real World Cup gets under way in lovely liberal Qatar is, of course, a coincidence.

“I emphasise we have created a fictional world,” Porter says. “For legal reasons, obviously, it’s not based on the story of Sepp Blatter [the Fifa president banned from the game in 2015 after a long corruption investigation]. Actually, the story is inspired not just by what’s gone on in football, but also at the International Olympic Committee. Wherever you get big international sporting events, with fixable games or fixable hosting rights, it seems that there’s always been the chance of corruption.”

The opera focuses on two childhood friends from a relatively poor country who have grown up, perhaps a little improbably, to be the respective captains of the men’s and women’s national teams. In the first act the two friends are leading their country’s bid to host the World Cup. However, in the time-honoured phrase, this is definitely an opera of two halves. “They are stitched up by all sorts of corruption in the first half,” Porter reveals, “but in the second half, which is the tournament itself, you see them getting a sort of revenge.”

Why is the piece called Gods of the Game? “Because,” Porter replies, “the premise of the entire opera is that the great footballers of the past — the likes of Pelé and even Messi and Ronaldo — have ascended
to a kind of godlike status where they are watching over the development of the game. So the whole story is contextualised as a kind of appeal from the fans to these ‘gods’ to sort out the mess that the game has become.”

Gods getting involved in human affairs? Why, it sounds just like . . . an opera! From Monteverdi to Wagner, dozens of masterpieces were built on exactly that scenario. “Well, there you go,” Porter says. “On the face of it, opera and football do seem very different. They appeal to very different demographics, for one thing. Look closer, though, and there’s something very operatic about sport played at the highest level. The high stakes, the larger-than-life emotions, the heroes, the villains.”

Porter is a lifelong Leyton Orient fan, so he knows all about the ups and downs of the game (although, as he points out, the O’s are sitting proudly on top of EFL League 2). He also has a useful father, Dilwyn Porter, the emeritus professor of sports history at De Montfort University in Leicester. “Yes, he’s been a handy source of reference,” Porter says.

As were presumably Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, who appear in the opera, albeit on film. “Actually, I’m rather relieved I wasn’t there when they were filming their bits,” Porter says. “I would have been totally starstruck. Mind you, I would be starstruck if I met the Leyton Orient reserve team.”

Appearing in person, at least for some performances, will be the actor and comedian Lee Mack. He plays a TV commentator, wheeling out all the hallowed hyperboles of that profession. And there will also be a film of 40 specially trained football fans from round the country, supplementing the onstage chorus by singing Porter’s newly written football chants set to famous operatic melodies. “Which of course echoes what happens already when fans take famous tunes and set them to new words,” Porter points out.

Will there be any actual football in PJ Harris’s staging? The answer, it appears, is yes and no. “Some of the singers play football in their spare time, some don’t,” Porter says. “So the challenge is to get them at least looking like professional footballers. It’s actually not the first time I’ve done a show with football on stage. I wrote a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company [The Christmas Truce] about the game between English and German troops in no man’s land in 1914, but that was much easier because it was supposed to be soldiers in big boots having a kick around. Here we are trying to suggest it’s the world’s greatest footballers at the World Cup.”

Grange Park Opera is no stranger to “docu-operas” reflecting on current events. Only last year it commissioned and premiered The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko, dramatising the 2006 poisoning of the Russian secret service officer turned dissident whistleblower. That, the critics felt, was a worthy but dull affair. Gods of the Game promises to be livelier. Indeed, Wasfi Kani — Grange Park’s irrepressible chief executive — has pledged to deck out the company’s Theatre in the Woods (built on an estate that was owned by Bamber Gascoigne) in a riot of “football paraphernalia” for the occasion.

For Porter, however, the opera is just one of three notable first nights coming in quick succession next month. First, his adaptation of an Afghan refugee memoir, The Boy with Two Hearts, transfers to the National Theatre’s Dorfman after getting admiring reviews at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff last year. That opens on
October 1. Five days later, Gods of the Game is premiered. Then on October 13 Porter will be at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham to watch the first night of his theatrical adaptation of The Lavender Hill Mob, the classic 1951 Ealing comedy.

It’s an extraordinarily varied portfolio of work to be on display simultaneously from one playwright, but it epitomises Porter’s whole career. Now in his mid-forties, he has never been short of commissions since graduating from the drama department of Birmingham University more than 20 years ago. “I was very lucky,” he says. “My first years in the business coincided with an expansion in commissioning schemes for young writers, both for stage and TV. I’ve never looked back. And it helps now that I live in Glynde [in East Sussex]. Lovely view of the South Downs and all that, but nothing much to do except write.”