The beautiful game has not been embraced by the seventh art in quite the same way as its American equivalent. Yet Soccer, or Football as we have it here, has a simplicity which makes for a thrilling and uncomplicated conflict, and yet few filmmakers centre their stories around it. Baseball is well served with A League of Their Own, Field of Dreams, The Natural, and many more, capturing the passion and drama of the game. The American variant of football has too, with Friday Night Lights, The Waterboy and Any Given Sunday showing off the variety of stories that can be told around the game. But Football (‘Soccer’) trails behind in the cinematic stakes.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some cracking films that have used football to build their dramatic stories. There is an inbuilt connection to the game, an understanding by osmosis of the importance of a last minute free kick, a controversial penalty, a red card at the wrong moment; all are moments imbued with gravity and tension. Over the years fans across the world have embraced this drama, with billions of fans worldwide and millions spent on soccer betting Indiana and elsewhere each week. Match Day is a weekly reminder that there are more important things in life, but not many.
In this spirit we’re taking a look back at the big (and one small screen) ventures onto the pitch, to films that put the boot into our hearts with tales of minnows in a pool of champions, films that put you in the terraces with the roar of thousands filling the air. Accept no substitute – here are our favourite Football films.
Escape to Victory
Nowhere else are you going to find Michael Caine, Bobby Moore, Max Von Sydow, Pele and Spurs favourite Ossie Ardiles share a billing, and there is something of the miraculous about John Huston’s 1981 World War II film.
While the acting from the footballers, and the football from the actors varies wildly, there is something spirited about this film, which hangs together on the premise that we’re stronger together, especially in troubled times.
Its rousing climax is worth the wait, and the cinematic football match makes the most of its players’ skill and grace.
Asif Kapadia’s documentaries are exemplary renditions of the power and the passion aroused by their subjects. Winning awards and plaudits around the world, there are few figures capable of sustaining the Kapadia treatment but Argentine footballer Diego Maradona is certainly one.
Premiering at Cannes in 2019, Kapadia and producers James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin made excellent use of recently discovered archival footage and contemporary accounts. Their film gets to the heart of the man behind the acheivements, while bringing his magnetism and magic on the pitch to the fore.
It’s a brilliantly told tale of one of the greatest footballers the game has ever known.
Stephen Chow’s 2001 comedy is a balletic blend of martial arts and football, one that captures your heart from the first frame. The choreography is sublime, the heightened drama gloriously over the top, and the gaggle of strange characters Chow places teams up with are just as extravagant.
It did excellent Box Office work across the world, no doubt helped by the sport’s international appeal. Nothing has come close to matching this ridiculous and endearing version of the beautiful game.
The Damned United
Michael Sheen’s propensity for inhabiting real life characters was put to great use in Tom ‘Cats’ Hooper’s adaptation of Peter Morgan and David Pearce’s 2006 novel. UK readers of a certain age will remember the cantankerous and commited football manager Brian Clough in his heyday as manager of Derby County and Nottingham Forest. But it was his short stint as manager of Leeds United which gives this film its centre.
Sheen appears alongside a bevy of venerable UK talent, including Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent and Colm Meaney, and the film dives deeply into the competitiveness and ego-fuelled propulsion of fandom and football management. It’s a class act.
OK, so we’re cheating here. Nothing against Bend it Like Beckham, Goal, Green Street and When Saturday Comes, but there has been nothing in the last thirty years that evokes the spirit of the game quite like Ted Lasso.
The man who makes Ned Flanders look like a firebrand hothead, Lasso gets under the skin of why we love the game so much. The fan chants have become catchphrases, characters such as Roy Kent are recognisble archetypes yet played with enough soul to elevate themselves, and the weekly relegation/promotion drama more than captures the emotional highs and lows of football fandom. Watch just episode and you’re Richmond ’til you die.