No Rocky Balboa! Sylvester Stallone was once a goalkeeper

Pelé broke his finger and there were a number of other injuries: Sylvester Stallone’s performance as a footballer was curious.

When you think of Sylvester Stallone, you immediately think of Rocky Balboa. The Hollywood star is more closely linked to his most famous film character than almost any other screen hero. Rocky is a legend, contemporary history and cult figure. Quite a few consider the fictitious fighter from a humble background in Philadelphia to be the greatest boxer ever. For Stallone, his star role not only meant fame, awards and wealth, but also his breakthrough as an actor.

The American, who is literally powerful, not only flickered across the cinema screens as a boxer, but was once also a footballer in a blockbuster: when Stallone was 35 years old and just a world star, he again played a character from the world of sport: the footballer Robert Hatch. A name that at first glance means little to many, but in reality it is the main character in one of the most famous football films in history – “Escape for Victory” (“Escape or Victory”).

Sylvester Stallone played alongside Pele

Directed by the great John Huston (who freely admitted he knew nothing about football and only accepted the project because he was guaranteed a large fee), the film was released in 1981.

Inspired by the “Game of Death”, a game played during World War II on August 9, 1942 in Kiev between Lokomotiv and Dinamo players and a team of German Luftwaffe officers, it tells of a duel between a group of Allied prisoners and a German one national team. A game planned by Major von Steiner (played by Max von Sydow), a former soccer player, and promoted by his Nazi superiors, who saw it as an extraordinary propaganda opportunity.

The Allied team is led by Captain John Colby (played by Michael Caine), a former West Ham and England footballer. In order to make the footage of the game as authentic as possible, director Huston brings together the who’s who of the football scene. The film set features Brazilian legend Pelé, Bobby Moore (captain of England’s 1966 World Cup team), Osvaldo Ardiles (1978 World Cup winner), Paul Van Himst (Belgium’s icon) and Kazimierz Deyna (one of Poland’s strongest players).

There are plenty of other professionals involved, some of whom were ‘on loan’ from Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town. They are the main actors of a crew accompanied by Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone, the only two real actors.

Sylvester Stallone was supposed to storm alongside Pele

Stallone can’t kick, but is accepted into the team as Robert Hatch, since he is organizing the escape of the prisoners of war through the sewers, which was originally planned for the half-time break. Fun Fact: Stallone is cast as Pelé’s strike partner. However, it quickly becomes clear to everyone involved that the actor’s football skills are too limited for this. So he gets put in goal.

“Goalkeeper was the only role I could believably play,” Stallone later recalled. “I don’t know if I could have learned to be a forward or to play in other positions. Especially when I had people like Bobby Moore or Pele in front of me. It’s something that intimidates you because you’re not with a team played by children, but with the best players in the world”.

Nothing should be left to chance for the success of the film and so Stallone gets support from Gordon Banks, one of the greatest goalkeepers in history. The task of the 1966 world champion is clear: he must teach the basics of the role to an actor who knows absolutely nothing about football.

Banks becomes Stallone’s special coach on and off set, but there’s a problem right from the start: Sly, the film’s star, decides after a few days that he doesn’t need a tutor anymore. He feels he has learned what he needs to learn, that he has understood how to position and move in the most realistic way.

Ex-England international Kevin Beattie said: “He decided after two days not to (Banks’ help, ed.) because he was convinced he could do it on his own. That was arrogant.” Ipswich goalkeeper Paul Cooper, who doubled for Stallone in some scenes, confirmed: “After half a day he thought he knew more than I did.”

But then Stallone’s self-assessment doesn’t quite fit. During filming, he fractured a finger and two ribs, among other things. He dislocated his shoulder and suffered several muscle injuries. In addition, he is said to have often turned up (too) late at the shooting. Was it because he was working on the screenplay for Rocky II at the same time?

Sylvester Stallone and Co. manage to escape

Stallone explained: “To play a boxer, I’ve worked for many months alone and not under the eyes of the best in the world. It’s like the first training session against Muhammad Ali here: it’s too much. But I appreciate it, for helping me so much.”

The result is still impressive. The game between the prisoners of war and the Germans is 1:4 at halftime, Stallone and Co. abandon the planned escape in order to turn the game around. Spectacularly and against a lot of resistance, they fought a 4:4 in the stadium of Colombes. Stallone becomes a hero just before the final whistle when he saves a penalty kick from the German captain (played by Werner Roth, former New York Cosmos midfielder). Allegedly, it took 34 tries for Stallone to save the ball…

The frenetically cheering French spectators intoned the Marseillaise and stormed the pitch. In the hustle and bustle, the prisoners of war still have the chance to escape – and seize it.

The film is a commercial success: it grossed almost $28 million on a budget of $12 million. And it causes Sylvester Stallone to gradually gain a completely different impression of football.

For example, Pelé, who broke his little finger on his right hand with a hard shot, said Stallone had become a “good goalkeeper” during the filming.

Stallone concluded: “I boxed and I also played a lot of American football. With this film I stumbled upon a sport that is so universal and understood by everyone, but that requires practically everything. To play football you need intelligence, perseverance and courage”.

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