10 Best Soccer Movies Ever Made
As arguably the world's most popular spectator sport, and a game watched by billions across the world, it should come as no surprise that filmmakers have for years tried to capture the essence of football onto celluloid.
The results, however, have been rather mixed.
For every classic piece of cinema involving the beautiful game, there are many more movies that come across as too schmaltzy, too cliched or that simply fail to convey why football means so much to so many people.
For this article, let us focus on the best. We have selected 10 of the greatest movies ever made about the sport, a mixture of documentaries and drama that are guaranteed to capture your heart from start to finish.
It was a cinematic marriage made in heaven. Volatile Argentina football legend Diego Maradona opening up his life for equally mercurial Serbian director Emir Kusturica, who followed the Pibe de Oro across Buenos Aires in this enthralling documentary.
The filmmaker could be accused of getting a little too close to his subject; the mutual understanding between the two temperamental artists at times grates, as Kusturica willfully glosses over the less savoury details of Diego's life in favour of presenting the myth.
But he is redeemed by some truly brilliant scenes. An interview with Maradona inside one of Buenos Aires' most notorious "cabaret" bars, surrounded by half-naked dancers, is a particular highlight. As is the filming of the marriage between two members of the Church of Maradona, in the middle of Argentinos Juniors' pitch, which culminates in the bride picking up a football and dropkicking it into a throng of guests.
Not all football films deal with what happens inside the pitch. Some of the most popular titles of the last few years prefer to highlight the dark side of our game: the hooligans.
While the Frodo Baggins-led Green Street was the more famous picture worldwide, its Hollywood interpretation of football violence did not really strike a chord with reality. Enter The Football Factory, based on John King's novel, a dystopian interpretation of the Chelsea firm full of petty theft, cocaine abuse and casual racism.
The film charts Danny Dyer's descent into a state of extreme paranoia after an unfortunate encounter with the family of Tamer Hassan, head of the hooligan outfit for bitter rivals Millwall. The movie closes with a brutal pitched battle arranged before a Chelsea-Millwall cup clash, and a rendition of The Jam's "Going Underground" is the perfect way to end any film.
Escape to Victory
What can you say about a film set in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp that stars Sylvester Stallone, Pele and Michael Caine? It might not be the most polished piece of film ever to grace the big screen, but Escape to Victory provides plenty of enjoyment to those willing to suspend their disbelief somewhat.
The plot sees Caine play the role of a British POW and former professional footballer, roped into organising an exhibition game against the guards, which quickly turns into a publicity stunt for the German authorities.
Against all odds, the ragtag side, bolstered by the inclusion of Pele and most of the Ipswich Town first-team squad of the early 1980s, come back from 4-1 down to secure an agonising draw. Not only that, but the heroes take advantage of a pitch invasion at the final whistle to escape their captors' clutches, Stallone provoking madness with a frankly improbable save that keeps the game level. Unmissable.
Taking broadly the same premise as Escape to Victory, Mean Machine changes the setting from a POW camp to a grim, modern British prison for this Vinnie Jones vehicle.
In this remake of American football flick The Longest Yard, Jones plays a former England captain who is haunted by allegations of match-fixing as his career went into a tailspin. An assault on a police officer leads to him being banged up alongside convicts who resent his betrayal and champagne lifestyle, but he finds redemption after being roped in to coach his inmate friends against the guards.
From that point it's fairly predictable, underdog-comes-through-to-win fare we've seen in millions of sports movies, but the journey and the ragtag characters of the prison keep the action lighthearted and energetic. Watch out for Jason Statham, who adopts an almost unintelligible Scottish accent to play the team's unhinged, martial arts-obsessed goalkeeper with a grudge.
Looking for Eric
This Ken Loach film is not so much about what happens on the pitch, rather an essay on the nature of fanaticism itself and how the game provides an escape from the drudgery of regular life.
Cantona-obsessed Eric Bishop slowly watches his life fall apart as he contends with a dead-end job, a strained relationship with his ex-wife and a son who appears to be slipping further under the wing of a local drug baron. The turning point, however, comes after smoking his boy's marijuana, when he sees the Gallic genius turn up and start to give him advice.
Everything is better for Eric from that point, as Cantona stays with him and helps him make changes to his uninspiring existence. The film is gritty and escapist at the same time, and the ex-Manchester United legend's superbly hammy acting lights up the screen with every appearance.
The Damned United
Legendary English manager Brian Clough is remembered almost as much for his volatile, eccentric temperament as he is for his brilliance from the bench. The Damned United tries to capture both sides of the late ex-Nottingham Forest and Derby County trainer, focusing on one of the darkest eras of Cloughie's career.
The film tells the story of the 44 days Clough spent as manager of Leeds United in 1974, an era that has gone down as one of the most infamous, controversial spells in football history. Already an unpopular figure with the Elland Road players and fans, the new manager's methods and abrasive personality led to almost open warfare in the dressing room, before he was sacked just over a month into his stay.
Michael Sheen is a force of nature in the main role, exposing Clough's insecurities and bluster as he struggled against the tide in his new club while keeping his human side intact. Other were not so happy: Dave Mackay sued the producers over what he saw as an inaccurate portrayal in the film.
Mike Bassett: England Manager
A clever piece of cinema that revels in subverting the usual expectations of underdog sports movies. Mike Bassett tells the story of an uncouth, foul-mouthed lower league coach who finds himself in England's top job, and all hell breaks loose as he prepares them for the World Cup.
A comedy of errors ensues as the protagonist, played by a perfectly-cast Ricky Tomlinson, goes from disaster to disaster at the helm. Whether its calling up two useless midfielders Benson and Hedges, due to a confusion stemming from a team list written on the back of a cigarette packet, or the star of the team getting romantically involved with a Brazilian transexual, nothing can go right for the hapless manager.
There is redemption at the end. England do not win the World Cup, but a respectable defeat to Brazil in the semi-final restores Bassett's reputation and ensures his family can once more leave the house without being abused and pelted with fruit. The manager comes home with his head held high and changes his previous decision to resign in favour of staying with the Three Lions.
Many critics hold up this study of an Arsenal fan whose life revolves around his club as an exemplary study into the phenomenon of middle-class fanaticism, as events in the last 20 years have forced football to diversify from its traditionally working base.
Fever Pitch, based on Nick Hornby's book of the same name, follows Paul as he juggles a job as a teacher and a newly-blossoming relationship with his love for the Gunners that paralyses him on matchdays. The action culminates with Paul watching his beloved team take on Liverpool in the last game of the season, mirroring the final in 1989 when the London club struck to win the title in injury time.
It's a gripping, enthralling film, not to be confused with a dreadful remake starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore that moves the focus to Boston and the Red Sox.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
As arguably the greatest French player in football history, it was perhaps inevitable that Zinedine Zidane would sooner or later be given the documentary treatment in his home nation. The result in A 21st Century Portrait, however, is far from a one-sided adoration of the ex-Real Madrid star.
Zidane reduces the story of his subject to just a single game in his career, a Liga clash against Villarreal in 2005, where the midfielder was sent off for his part in a brawl. Zizou is followed around for every minute of the match by 17 synchronised cameras, and the filmmakers achieve a breathtakingly austere portrait of the player, captured on camera like never before.
Add to these glorious visuals an understated acoustic soundtrack prepared by Mogwai, and you have a powerful piece of arthouse cinema that is well worth a look.
The Goal! Trilogy
This 300-minute marathon could well be dubbed the Lord of the Rings of professional football. Across three films, Goal! charts the story of Santiago Munez, a Mexican immigrant living in Los Angeles who works as a gardener but dreams of making the most of his outrageous talents on the pitch.
His dreams come true when he wins the opportunity of a trial with Newcastle United, and while he struggles with the rain and cold of the British North East, Munez slowly makes a name for himself in his adopted nation. There are plenty of slow-motion moments and plenty of agonising last-minute goals, as Santi earns Newcastle a place in the Champions League, proving his worth.
The next films see a move to Real Madrid, an appearance at the World Cup finals and, as the title probably suggests, no shortage of goals, goals and more goals. The trilogy will not be showing up on any critics' shortlists, but global takings of over $35 million for the first two films alone prove that football can bring in the audiences.