It may be a stock cliché that fans treat sports as if it were a religion, but when it comes to Jeffrey C. Bell’s documentary Sons of Ben, it is a cliché more apt than usual, for the heroes of this film worship a team that is entirely nonexistent.
Oh, pardon me. I came over all edgy atheist for a moment there. Give me a moment to recover, and I’ll continue. Sons of Ben follows the epic struggle of soccer (football) fans in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to establish a local franchise (club), calling themselves the Sons of Ben (-jamin Franklin).
You might think the American soccer teams that actually exist had enough trouble attracting fans, but just as dead musicians and artists are better than living ones, nonexistent teams attract far more devotion than real, crappy ones. And anyway, just as the First Amendment guarantees Americans religious freedom, shouldn’t they have the right to support any team, playing any sport, that they want?
The film opens with an enormous, triumphant fan rally for the finally-realised team (opening minute spoilers!): “There is no better way to show that we need a team than to be fans of a team that doesn’t exist”, says co-founder Bryan James. The charmingly concise documentary then goes back in time, working through the origins and the growth of the Sons of Ben movement, in a manner that is pacy but never seems to skip over details. Structurally and thematically, the documentary is a classic underdog story, more feelgood sports drama than documentary really, but it succeeds as both. Among the important plot points hit along the road are: the humble origins, as we’re shown Bryan James’ childhood with an English father – so that’s where all this devotion to the beautiful game has its roots! There is the rise to greatness, in a particularly satisfying section showing the movement gain momentum at an unstoppable rate. There is the inexplicable hostility of jealous rivals, in one brief section showing the online vitriol directed at our humble heroes (“they denied Jesus too”, nobody says). Next is the defeat snatched from the jaws of victory – just as plans to build a stadium are finally underway, in comes a Diabolus Ex Machina in the shape of the recession – and the final rally and return (the ending, unusually for a documentary, is almost unadulteratedly happy).
Sons of Ben is even clever enough to include a counterpoint underdog story, that of the town of Chester, Pennsylvania. See, the Sons of Ben all give competing proposals for possible stadium locations in Philly that are all, apparently, just perfect. So most fans react with dismay when the final location is revealed to be Chester, a town which is, apparently, rife with crime and poverty. But just as the Sons of Ben want to keep their stadium out of such a ghetto, the residents of Chester welcome the news, not only for the prestige – and attendant economic recovery – that sports can bring, but also for its sense of community. We are invited to recall the U.S. success of community soccer programmes, and to see the coming of the Philadelphia Union to Chester as a large-scale realisation of the same principle. This section carries some ironic undertones for British viewers; the idea that a footy club will represent a relief from gang violence present a sharp contrast to the hooliganism football’s famous for over here. But, again like religion, it’s not sports that are bad or good, but their followers; and in Philly, soccer is salvation. “When the white people come, the cops look after the white people […] We’re safe when y’all here. When y’all leave, somebody get shot”, observes a local black woman. “I’m being honest”, she says, and she is: the rejuvenation of the Chester waterfront that it was assumed the stadium would bring fails to materialise, and Chester is, apparently, just as bad as ever.
But the miseries of the ghetto – and that of cancer, with which key figure Nick Sakiewicz battles while working tirelessly to establish the team – can’t keep the film down for long, as the Sons of Ben finally get their team, the unmatched intensity of their devotion overcoming even “Negadelphianism”: the tendency of Philadelphian fans of other sports to hate their teams for sucking, rather than love them for trying. Sons of Ben makes a persuasive argument that the Sons of Ben, at least, are a true religion of love.