As the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil approaches kick-off, and hopes fall on expectant nations once again, what better time for a look at that most unfairly maligned of sports movie sub-genres: the football film?
Football and film are actually closer to each other than their generally strained relationship on film seems to suggest: they are both arts and entertainments, and vehicles for escapism; they can inspire, provide heroes to identify with and daydream about, and often lead to obsession.
Yet football on film is frequently the subject of ridicule and derision. Many movies have tried to exploit football’s universal popularity (and therefore potential box-office appeal), but come unstuck when trying to recreate the thrill and excitement of the beautiful game. Far more successful are those that manage to capture some of the sport’s heightened emotions by exploring human stories off the pitch.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Below is a 4-4-2 formation of the 10 of the very finest examples, from movies that weave football into a traditional genre narrative, to documentaries, comedies, political allegories and television plays that rouse, charm and excite, whether you’re a fan or not.
The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)
Director Thorold Dickinson
Legendary manager George Allison and his all-conquering Arsenal First League team appear as themselves in this thriller, among the earliest fiction features to base itself around the beautiful game. In a fictitious charity match against The Trojans, Alf Kirchen makes it “one-nil to the Arsenal” (“And that’s just the way we like it,” beams Allison) before the visitors’ star player suddenly dies on the pitch, sparking a police investigation led by one of cinema’s most eccentric detectives, Leslie Banks’ Inspector Slade.
Directed by undervalued British filmmaker Thorold Dickinson (Gaslight, 1940; The Queen of Spades, 1949), this is a deliciously zippy comedy-thriller – “the closest we got to a British Thin Man” reckoned Graham Greene – with fluidly executed football scenes. It was shot on location at Highbury Stadium, then the home of Arsenal, and, as Martin Scorsese said: “Even as someone who can’t stand sports – soccer, anything with a ball – the soccer scenes are exhilarating.”
The Golden Vision (1968)
Director Ken Loach
This Wednesday Play, directed by Ken Loach, is about a group of Everton fans who miss births, weddings and funerals to see their team play. Like Loach’s 2009 film Looking for Eric, The Golden Vision centres on family life and the escapist power of football, and explores the idolisation of a star player – in this case centre-forward Alex Young, known around Goodison Park by his eponymous nickname.
Lifelong Bath City fan Loach combines player interviews with dramatised scenes from the lives of fans to show the inextricable link between a football club and its supporters. One of the documentary segments, in which Young confesses the troubles of his profession to camera, is especially startling now, in this day and age of anodyne player interviews and an increasing disconnect between fans and players.
Another Sunday and Sweet FA (1972)
Director Michael Apted
What we’re about to witness is called a football match. Not the beginning of World War III, not the destruction of the human race – a football match.
This Granada television play, written by Jack Rosenthal and directed by multiple BAFTA-winner Michael Apted (Seven Up!, 1964), is the only feature on this list to approach the genre from the position of a referee and within the venerable institution of Sunday League football. David Swift is the man in black, hoping to impart his peaceful philosophy on life to the amateurs who kit up to play on an overgrown field in Manchester every Sunday.
The story takes place over one match, with Rosenthal and Apted humorously capturing the treasured absurdities of Sunday League football – the spectacular divides in quality, the lack of control, and the need for a “values bag”. The referee finally exerts his authority in the hilarious, almost magical realist final scene when he adopts the spirit of Brian Glover’s PE teacher from Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) – star of one of the best football scenes outside of the football film sub-genre.
Escape to Victory (1981)
Director John Huston
The most beloved and ridiculed of all football films, John Huston’s Escape to Victory brings together two seemingly unrelated entities: association football and a prisoner of war camp. Michael Caine is the ex-pro who recruits Allied PoWs Pelé, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, half of the 1978 FA Cup-winning Ipswich Town team and Sylvester Stallone to take on the German national team in Nazi-occupied Paris.
The implausibility of it all notwithstanding, this is a rousing, Boy’s Own relic, which has most of its fun in the climatic football scene. Stallone saves a penalty, the Wehrmacht (headed by Max von Sydow) sit humiliated in the stands, and Pelé immortalises what has now become one of the football films most wearisome clichés: the impractical overhead kick winner.
Gregory’s Girl (1981)
Director Bill Forsyth
Football at the cinema is rarely associated with such sweet nature as it is in Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl. John Gordon Sinclair plays the gawky schoolboy of the title, relegated to goalkeeper in the high-school team by new star-striker Dorothy (Dee Hepburn, who trained at Partick Thistle FC). Hormones immediately take over football though and he falls for her as she takes to the pitch – she’s confident, assured and focused; everything he is not, on it or off it.
Indeed, the girls are the wisest, most knowing souls here; the adults are artless and immature while the boys are naive and fumbling (Gregory’s 10-year-old sister, Madeline, provides him with expert romantic advice). But Forsyth has a gentle affection for all of them. In this easygoing classic he captures the ephemeral qualities of youth and how football can so easily be consumed by ‘real life’.
Those Glory Glory Days (1983)
Director Philip Saville
Based on a semi-autobiographical story by Julie Welch – the first female sports reporter on a national newspaper – Those Glory, Glory Days is a charming and unashamedly nostalgic look back at her teenage years, and her obsession with Tottenham Hotspur. The young Julia (Zoë Nathenson) and her school friends escape their unhappy home lives by following Tottenham to the 1961 FA Cup final, where Spurs would seal a historic ‘double’.
A TV movie, produced as part of David Puttnam’s First Love series for Channel 4, it poignantly depicts the highs and lows of teenage obsession and the experience of growing up as a female football fan in a male-dominated culture. Like the best films about football fandom (see also The Golden Vision), it understands what football can mean to people, what it is to feel proud in victory or defeat, and how it can foster a sense of belonging absent elsewhere.
The Miracle of Bern (2003)
Director Sönke Wortmann
One of the biggest shocks in World Cup history is now known as ‘the miracle of Bern’ – the name for West Germany’s triumph in the 1954 finals, when Sepp Herberger’s unfancied side beat Hungary’s ‘magic Magyars’ of Puskas and co. Such was the impact of the victory on national consciousness that it’s often seen as a herald of Germany’s economic and political recovery after the war.
Director Sönke Wortmann filters his nostalgic vision through the innocence of 11-year-old Matthias (Louis Klamroth), boot polisher to local footballer Helmut Rahn (who would go on to score the winning goal in 1954). However Matthias’s happy childhood is thrown into turmoil when his estranged father returns from a Soviet PoW camp – a larger symbol for the collective trauma of a nation. It’s a setup for some touching and inspiring moments on a personal and national scale, and a fine example of how football and pride can infuse in joy.
Ginga: The Soul of Brasilian Football (2005)
Director Tocha Alves, Hank Levine and Marcelo Machado
In the words of Marcelo Machado’s documentary, originally devised by Nike to promote their Brazilian campaign: “Brazilians are born with ‘ginga’ and it makes them dream.” The term ‘ginga’ is defined as “the mysterious, indefinable magical quality of rhythm and movement that sets the Brazilian game apart from all others” – something their World Cup history definitely attests.
In a series of vignettes, it charts the vagaries of 10 different footballing dreams – from street players like Romarinho, to one-legged Wescley and finally world-class pros like Robinho (who signed for Real Madrid shortly after filming). Taken as a whole, these stories highlight Brazil’s passionate relationship with football and as such the fierceness of its meritocracy. This is all of course underscored with some exceptional ballwork, especially when Robinho and Falcao (at the time regarded as the world’s best court player) face off at the end.
Director Jafar Panahi
In many of these films, football means belonging and solidarity, but in Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Offside it amounts to exclusion, as a group of girls attempt to get into the men-only stadium to see Iran’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Bahrain. A young boy whispers “they’re pros, they know how to get in – they know all the tricks”, but those that fail are corralled outside the ground and don’t get to see a kick.
Shot mostly at Tehran’s Azadi stadium on the day of the match, Panahi captures the atmosphere of a defining moment of mass emotion, and the inherent comedy of having to miss it completely. His film is fervently political, yet it also recognises the absurdity of the girls’ predicament, as they try to work out what’s happening on the pitch from the noise of the crowd and the commentaries of the soldiers keeping them guard.
Next Goal Wins (2014)
Director Steve Jamison and Mike Brett
Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s winning documentary about the American Samoa national team starts with the most gigantic of defeats – their 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001, still an international record. Appropriately, the directors take the whole team as their subject, yet give special attention to two of its most extraordinary members, Jaiyah Saelua – the world’s first transgender player – and their Dutch manager Thomas Rongen, as they seek their first ever competitive victory during OFC World Cup Qualification.
It’s an underdog story in the purest sense, which succeeds because of its heart and charm, and its sensitivity towards its subjects. Their spirit and determination in the face of almost certain defeat – which is most evident during the unbelievable final scenes – is an uplifting and thoroughly welcome reminder that the beautiful game is not just about the playing.
- The Damned United (Tom Hooper, 2009)
- Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, 2006)
- Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 2001)
- Mike Bassett: England Manager (Steve Barron, 2001)
- Looking for Eric (Ken Loach, 2009)
- Bend It like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002)
- Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)
- Fever Pitch (David Evans, 1997)
- Purely Belter (Mark Herman, 2000)
- When Saturday Comes (Maria Giese, 1996)
As Brazil trounced their way to victory in their opening World Cup match, it was a film about Leeds United that came out on top when we asked you what we’d missed from our football film list. Starring Michael Sheen as the team’s infamous 1970s manager Brian Clough, The Damned United narrowly beat off strong competition from Hong Kong kung fu comedy Shaolin Soccer and the French documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.