The world holds its breath for approximately one month every four years as the very best footballers compete on behalf of national pride for the right to be the undisputed champions of world football. The Brazilian hosted 2014 FIFA World Cup final between Germany and Argentina was watched by approximately 3.2 billion people, making it the most watched live television event in history and drawing nearly 6 times as many viewers as the first mission to the moon. Football is popular, just in case you didn’t get it yet…
In cinema, many have attempted to recreate the love and passion held by fans in the stands and players on the pitch, and in doing so have created a plethora of classic sports movies. In this Top 10 list from The Film Magazine, we’ll be taking a look at the 10 most must-see football movies in history, counting down from 10 to 1. Let’s kick off…
Have an opinion? Leave a comment!
Disclaimer: Only movies depicting the game shall be included. No movies depicting the violence of fans, such as Football Factory (2004) and Green Street (2005), or documentaries about the game (such as One Night in Turin) shall be on this list.
10. There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble (2000)
A British working class drama about a Mancunian child with a dream to play for Manchester City (before they had the modern day riches of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayhed Al Nahyan), There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble brings together British acting juggernauts Ray Winstone and Robert Carlyle in support of the terrific Lewis McKenzie, who plays the teenage want-to-be footballer at the centre of the movie.
McKenzie’s Grimble reveals a previously unforeseen talent for football while at school and as such comes to transcend his social boundaries inside and outside of education to take his team to the cup final at Maine Road, the home of his beloved football club.
This is a story of a child taking to a football pitch to escape from the issues of poverty and abuse in his personal life, and as such creates a narrative around a character we all want to succeed. There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble is as much a commentary on class as it is a sports movie and thus excels in the genre by defying some of its limitations, making it our number 10 choice on this list.
9. United (2011)
Technically, United was a BBC original television drama and not a movie, so it would be fair to argue that this ‘movie’ doesn’t deserve a place on this list at all. But, disqualifying this feature-length drama on a technicality would be doing this list a disservice, because United is an incredibly well put together powerhouse of nostalgia, emotion and passion.
Whether you’re a Manchester United fan or support of one of their many rivals, United tells a universally recognisable story of overcoming massive loss and tragedy to achieve greatness by following the club’s most iconic player Bobby Charlton (played by Jack O’Connell) through the 1958 Munich air crash tragedy that took the lives of 8 first team players.
See Old Trafford before the stadium expansions and Manchester’s city development, the personal crises of many of the Manchester United legends at the club at the time, and a bunch of great acting performances from the likes of Sam Claflin, Dougray Scott and David Tennant.
8. The Damned United (2009)
A star vehicle for the emerging Michael Sheen and the directorial debut of the now critically acclaimed Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech; Les Misérables; The Danish Girl), The Damned United is nothing less than an ensemble of all things British, from its popular cast that includes the likes of Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent and Joe Dempsie, to its appreciation of the beautiful game and one of its most iconic, important, enigmatic and brutally honest real-life characters, Brian Clough. The movie, based on the novel of the same name by David Peace, shines a light on the legendary manager’s ill-fated 44 days in charge of England’s biggest and most successful club of the era, Leeds United, and follows his personal journey from borderline arrogant prospect to humbled and honourable gentleman in this deeply personal story of obsession and passion that transcends the sport through which it’s told. This is one football movie that will likely mean more to British fans of the game with a memory of the times, but it works in of itself to be a classic sports movie because of the interesting character and journey at its very centre.
7. Mean Machine (2001)
A British remake of the Robert Aldrich American Football movie The Longest Yard (1974) starring Burt Reynolds, in which a former professional player is imprisoned and uses his talents to unite the jail-mates against the prison guards, Mean Machine stars former Wimbledon, Leeds United and Wales player Vinnie Jones as a disgraced football player who gets his redemption in a seemingly mismatched game with the prison guards.
Played mostly for laughs, this football movie turned prison drama packs an emotional punch that you may not expect and has some of the better choreographed football moments of many a film on this list. It also stars a great ensemble of British talent, including Danny Dyer in a role that defies his usual hard-man typecasting and Jason Statham as a crazed Scotsman intent on kicking people, as well as a pretty great soundtrack. This one will make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, and it’ll make you buy into the football they portray – an excellent British football film.
6. Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001)
By far the funniest film on this list, Mike Bassett: England Manager is every England fan’s wish fulfilment wherein a “man of the people” – played by ‘The Royle Family’ patriarch Ricky Tomlinson – takes over a team of pompous superstars and attempts to put them in their place while balancing pressure from the hopeless Football Association in charge of him and the ever-predatory press.
Dragged from lower league football to the England job as a result of there being no other options, Bassett is thrust into the spotlight to take charge of a group of players featuring a David Beckham type, a Paul Gascoigne type and his very own pair of Neville brothers, and is tasked with winning the World Cup. As is the case with most comedies, things don’t go as planned, but Mike Bassett doesn’t fail to inspire as well as make you belly laugh, and is a criminally underrated football movie worthy of a watch whenever you need a little bit of fantasy to offset the reality of your team’s poor form.
5. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006)
More of an art piece than a traditional narrative movie, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait presents legendary French footballer Zinedine Zidane in action at the iconic Bernabeu during his final season as a professional footballer. Playing for Spanish giants Real Madrid, a team that at the time was considered to be made up of so-called Galacticos including Raul, Ronaldo and David Beckham, Zidane was captured running a match for Madrid as a metronome of their midfield by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno.
With voice-overs placed over the footage of Zidane’s performance against Villarreal, A 21st Century Portrait was a film art piece that evolved Zidane’s status from legendary footballer to a graceful and powerful cultural figure, and only helped to build upon the enigmatic nature of his star persona.
4. Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Bend it Like Beckham was one of the biggest hits in football movie history, making waves on both sides of the Atlantic as a great movie tackling real issues regarding race, sexuality and gender politics, and becoming somewhat of a cultural phenomenon.
Arguably way ahead of its time, this 2002 release from Gurinda Chadha (Bride and Prejudice – 2004), celebrated a female minority in the lead role and championed a more accepting attitude to cultural differences between Sikhs and Christians, kick-starting the careers of lead actress Parminder Nagra (‘E.R.’, ‘Agents of Shield’), Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) and Jonathan Rhys Meyes (Mission: Impossible III, ‘The Tudors’) in the process.
Much more about the way sport, particularly football, can bring people together than about the games themselves, Bend It Like Beckham was a much needed female-led football movie that inspired countless girls to pursue the beautiful game professionally and is a funny and at times moving movie in of itself.
3. Escape To Victory (1981)
Bobby Moore, John Wark, Ossie Ardiles, Mike Summerbee and the incomparable all-time legend Pele. Need any more be said?
John Huston’s 1981 football war movie Escape to Victory (known simply as Victory in the United States), told the inspirational (albeit unrealistic) story of Nazi Germany’s national team challenging the best of the best footballers from their concentration camps to a match, the idea being that they’d be victorious and further assert their dominance in the eyes of the viewing public. The POW’s, led by Michael Caine, accept the challenge with the motivation of coming up with a plan to use the game as a decoy for an escape attempt. With a slew of legends gracing the screen, American lead Sylvester Stallone stands out like a sore thumb as a player without any skills or knowledge of the game, but when he becomes integral to the escape plan he is chosen to start the match in goal (owing to his superior knowledge of the American game of the same name).
Despite its rough themes of war, imprisonment, undernourishment and torture, Escape to Victory is fondly remembered as an uplifting piece, and is shot in such a way that it feels like a classic movie from an era earlier than the 80s. The on-pitch action is as fantastic as you may expect with the level of footballing talent involved too, making this particular film a great football movie with enough “ah, it’s that guy” to get through any lulls in the action.
2. Looking for Eric (2009)
What do you get when you mix the people’s game, an iconic figure from a football club once so tightly knit to its community, and one the most socially conscious film directors in British cinema history?
Looking for Eric.
From Ken Loach, the director of Kes (1969), The Spirit of ’45 (2013) and I, Daniel Blake (2016), Looking for Eric is a film interwoven with the issues of the time (2009), as the central character is a flawed but ultimately kind-hearted working class Mancunian who, along with his fellow Manchester United supporters, has been priced out of ever getting to see his beloved club play at Old Trafford again. Throughout the movie, as his issues grow larger and his hope diminishes, postman Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) confides in the Eric Cantona poster on his bedroom wall when, suddenly, the icon comes to life. Playing off his famously philosophical star persona is Cantona himself, who in this movie excels as an enigmatic helping hand to the film’s lead and ultimately brings the inspiration needed for Eric Bishop to overcome so much of what had been holding him back.
The movie pivots around Bishop’s relentless hassling of the United legend to reveal his favourite Manchester United moment. Is it the goal against Sunderland? Is it the goal against Palace? Is it this goal or that goal? When Cantona eventually responds, he says “no, it was a pass”, leaving you in awe of Loach’s unrivalled ability to include such a profoundly socialist ideal within a movie about football. Share the ball, share your hopes, share your dreams. Share, share, share. They call it the people’s game for a reason.
Honourable Mentions: She’s the Man (2006), The Two Escobars (2010), Fever Pitch (1997).
1. Goal (2005)
Working from the popular fable that anyone can make it in the world of football if they’re good enough, Goal: The Dream Begins (2005) tells the tale of Mexican born illegal immigrant to Los Angeles Santiago Munez, who goes from the dried out pitches of California to the wet and muddy pitches of Newcastle when he’s invited to a trial with one of England’s biggest football clubs. Supremely skilful but lacking in the strength and aggression needed to succeed in the British game, Munez initially fails in his attempt to win a contract at Newcastle United, but when he’s afforded a 2nd chance, he grabs it with both hands and earns the right to free himself of the shackles of the guilt that plagues him from back home.
This film not only inspires you to chase your dreams, but it also ignites a sense of pride in being from Britain or being a football fan in general. Living vicariously through the underprivileged and young Santiago is also an incredibly gratifying experience and features many a moment of true fan service, the likes of which are enough to make any want-to-be teenage footballer or mega-fan adult squeal with excitement. Much like Mean Machine and Escape to Victory in particular, Goal! provides mostly realistic looking on-pitch action too, mixing real-life players and footage with on-screen doubles, blending reality with the narrative of the movie seamlessly, and topping the whole thing off with a fantastic soundtrack filled with the sort of indie rock anthems you’d likely hear your local team’s supporter’s group listening to on their way to a big away day.
That’s your lot! What did you think? Did we miss off a favourite or include a movie you thought was rubbish? Let us know in the comments!