It’s been a year of epic sports stories. Barcelona have officially become The Greatest Football Team Ever, Shane Warne and Elizabeth Hurley have recreated Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery before our very (alarmed) eyes, while on screen Christian Bale has picked up an Oscar for his portrayal of ex-boxer Dicky Eklund and Mickey Rourke is setting to work learning the fine art of the rolling maul to play Welsh rugby international Gareth Thomas. With great sports docs like TT3D, Fire In Babylon and Senna also appearing on our screens, we can now do all our exercise vicariously. But there are other lesser-known sports stars out there with stories every bit as amazing. We’ve uncovered a few that we’d love to see on the big screen.
Sport: American football
Dream casting: Nicolas Cage
So awesome was this Detroit Lions quarterback, a three-time Championship winner, Hall of Famer and all-round king of the scrimmage in the ‘50s, that when he left the club they immediately became crap. Picture the scene: Layne, guiding his mighty Lions to another NFL championship, firing the pigskin around with effortless genius, discovers that his team has inexplicably packed him off to sunny Pittsburgh to play for the Steelers, presumably because he was making everyone else look bad. Feel the dramatic possibilities as the locker room goes quiet, thunder reverberates in the distance and Layne’s eyes glow red. “The Lions won’t win again for 50 years,” he cackles as he packs his sweaty jocks into a sports bag and heads for the exit. Cue: lightning...
It’s the makings of the perfect fantasy sports movie: Friday Night Lights meets Drag Me To Hell. Only Nicolas Cage could bring sufficient demented to the role as 'the Curse of Bobby Layne’ sees the Lions crumble to one losing season after another – although the sports scenes may require CGI. Cage would be just as perfect for Layne’s extra-curricular activities. The tough-as-nuts Layne regularly interspersed on-field glory with Leaving Las Vegas-style bar crawls. He even offered the world a pay-off ("If I'd known I was gonna live this long, I'd have taken a lot better care of myself”) that has Cage’s name written all over it.
Dream casting: Tom Hiddlestone
Keep your Ronaldos and your Messis. If you’re hunting for cinematic gold look no further than 1940Czech football legend Josef ‘Pepi’ Biscan. Matinee handsome with wavy locks weaved by the hair fairies themselves, he could run like a cheetah and had a foot like a traction engine. Needless to say his teammates at Slavia Prague hated him. They nicknamed him ‘Austrian Bastard’, unwisely considering his mum had a habit of battering opponents who fouled him with her handbag. The jibe was harsh considering that Bican had hauled himself out of poverty in post-WW1 Vienna by his bootstraps – or would have done if his parents had been able to afford boots. Or a ball.
He had to make do with kicking a sock around until his local team, Rapid Vienna, signed him up. Like Billy Elliot in baggier shorts, his story had all the highs and lows of any great biopic. He turned down a transfer to the giant Juventus, fearing that Italy was on the verge of communism, and instead moved to Czechoslovakia, presumably rearranging the words ‘frying pan’, ‘into’ and ‘fire’ as he went. Fortunately Bican was far better at scoring goals than reading the newspaper. He went on to score between 600 and 650 goals along the way. Yes, he scored so many they actually lost count. Statisticians have since declared him the greatest goal scorer of the 20th century, a century that – lest we forget - also gave us Rossi, Pele, van Basten, Messi, Romario and Heskey. Okay, not so much with Heskey.
Dream casting: Alexander Skarsgård
Living in a vast wilderness with one person for every six bajillion square miles, Finnish people have to do quite a lot of running just to see another human being. But few have run further than lanky policeman and long-distance runner Lasse Virén. Back in the early ‘70s Virén was the king of Finland’s great outdoors. He ran 150 miles a week, lived on a diet of reindeer milk and fresh air, and practised ‘sisu’, a Buddhist-like ability to overcome any pain and hardship. In short, he was a bit nuts. Perfect, we think, for the greatest athletics movie since Chariots Of Fire.
It’s a story that’s got everything. Classic backstory? Check. Maximum montage potential? Check? Brutal snow marathons? Oh yes. His gruelling training regimen – think: the opening of Batman Begins without all the creature comforts – carried him to the Munich Olympics of 1972, but Virén’s incredible story didn’t begin in earnest until he got to the Games. Sitting pretty in the 10,000 metres final, presumably thinking that all the moose wrestling had finally paid off, Virén suddenly tripped and sprawled across the track. It was a scenario known in athletics circles as ‘a complete frakin wipe-out’, but did the tall Finn give up? Did he heck. He dusted himself off, got up and tore after the other runners, overhauling them and smashing the world record in the process. Then he went on to win the 5000 metres too. Then he did it all again four years later. We’re saying Oscars a-go-go.
Dream casting: Idris Elba
Okay, the R-rated boxer isn’t going to make for the most uplifting biopic, but if you can see past the booze, drugs, crime, lonely death, mafia connections, prison time, ringside controversies and police victimisation, you’ve got a simple tale about a man trying to be the best he can be – and who doesn’t love that? Ving Rhames brought Liston to the screen in 2008’s Phantom Punch, but good as he is in the role, this story deserves another telling. Liston’s life makes Raging Bull look like Finding Nemo. He grew up in Arkansas with his psycho dad, who beat him regularly and even forced him to pull the plough when the mule wanted the day off, a childhood not exactly conducive to a life of happiness.
Sure enough, Liston’s story is low on hugs. He may not have been the smartest card in the pack – the police knew him as ‘Yellow Shirt Bastard’ because he wore the same brightly coloured T-shirt to every robbery – but he was a hell of a fighter, beating a succession of challengers to a pulp before knocking out Floyd Patterson in a 1962 title fight (pictured). He became America’s go-to bad guy, the nasty ying to Muhammed Ali’s fast-talking yang, but was he really just misunderstood? There’s enough ambiguity and conflict in his story (did he throw his fight with Ali? Did he die of an overdose? Was he working for Mob all along?) for several bone-crunching movies, all of them starring Joe Pesci as a mafioso with a short temper and a line in ill-fitting suits.
Sport: Rugby Union
Dream casting: Tom Hardy
Still only 29, Andy Powell could yet be another Welsh rugby player to find his way into cinemas – if he doesn’t crash into one first. The enfant terrible of the Wales back row is the closest thing rugby has to a warlock, mixing rampaging tiger-blooded performances on the pitch with even more rampaging efforts off it. Chief among them was his boozy decision to celebrate a victory by driving down the M4 in a golf buggy. It was an act of crazed inspiration that demands the attention of Michael Bay. And yes, we’re already calling it ‘Bad Boyo’.
Sadly no-one saw the funny side. Powell was arrested, chucked out of the Wales team and generally made to stand in the corner of rugby with a dunce’s hat on. It got worse: a year later he was chucked out of his new club team for fighting with football fans. Yup, not content with wreaking havoc on rugby, he set to work on another sport. With any luck this is part one of the greatest comeback story since Rocky. In part two Powell finds a Mister Miyagi, plays like a god for his new club, gets picked again for Wales and lifts the World Cup in a tearful final-reel climax.
Dream casting: Bradley Cooper
Forget Cole Trickle with his flirty ways and his fluorescent car: the real NASCAR hero is a man who recovered from a near-fatal crash, got straight back into his car a year later and promptly crashed again won eternal glory. That man is Ernie Irvan, a legend whose name is still whispered with hushed respect in NASCAR pit lanes. It’s a classic three-act tale of ambition, near-disaster and eventual triumph. It starts with Irvan leaving home in 1982 with only a fistful of bills in his pocket, stopping in Vegas to augment his modest savings before heading to North Carolina to make his fortune as a racing driver. He earned his keep welding seats at race tracks, winning the odd race along the way, before meeting a friendly car-builder called Marc Reno. The two joined forces - yes, there’s a bromance - gaving Swervin' Irvan the springboard he needed to drive at supersonic speeds and climb the NASCAR ladder.
Disaster, though, was round the next corner. Midway through a practise run at a Michigan race in 1994 he wiped out at 170mph, smooshing his brain and lungs in the process. Irvan was given only a 10% chance of making it through the night – but he pulled though and was back racing again less than a year later. And yes, he did crash again. But he won the respect of anyone who cherished raw courage and the smell of burning rubber. And, let’s face it, that’s all of us.