Sometimes referred to as the ‘universal language’, football is a sport that has resonated across all sorts of different cultures, and as such has also inspired filmmakers from around the world. With the sport’s greatest showcase, the World Cup, approaching, we look at 11 films from 11 different nations and the varying ways each have represented the beautiful game.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Two Half Times in Hell (1962)
Director: Zoltán Fábri
In contrast to its upbeat remake Escape to Victory (1981) – the one with Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Pele facing off against the Nazis – this Hungarian film culminates in a far bleaker outcome. This prisoners-of-war 11 manage to show up their German captors on the pitch, but are gunned down by a incensed officer in the film’s abrupt climax.
Director: Ken Loach
Nothing epitomises English football quite like a kickabout in the freezing cold on a mud-drenched field, as depicted in this much-loved scene from the Ken Loach classic. Protagonist Billy is more interested in climbing the crossbar, while Brian Glover steals the scene as a hilariously self-absorbed PE teacher pretending to be Bobby Charlton playing for Man Utd.
The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (1972)
Director: Wim Wenders
A slow, pondering film about a football player who impassively and inexplicably kills someone, bookended by two scenes at a football match, this early Wim Wenders film provokes us to compare a goalie during penalties with the protagonist’s own listless, nihilistic behaviour.
Gregory’s Girl (1980)
Director: Bill Forsyth
The football field is the setting for romance – or, more accurately, a hopeless teenage crush – in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl, when the charmingly goofy hero of the title falls for a girl who replaces him on the school team. His gawky, ungainly movements make for an amusing contrast to her elegant dribbling with the ball.
‘The Cartridge Family’, The Simpsons (1997)
Director: Pete Michels
The USA has never quite embraced football – sorry, ‘soccer’ – a fact hilariously satirised in this sketch from The Simpsons. A baffled Springfield crowd watch on as two static sides pass the ball around aimlessly, commentated on by a bored Kent Brockman, while his Mexican counterpart can barely contain his excitement.
City of God (2002)
Director: Fernando Meirelles
No nation is more synonymous with modern football than Brazil, and a typical scene of favela kids playing on the streets is depicted at the start of City of God. In keeping with the film’s theme of gang culture infringing on youthful innocence, however, the game ends prematurely when a local hot-shot brashly shoots the ball.
Director: Jafar Panahi
Offside is set during the triumphant day Iran qualified for the 2006 World Cup – an occasion uses by rebellious director Jafar Panahi to satirise the nation’s sexist laws. Following a group of football-mad girls denied entry from the all-male stadium, we – like them – hover tantalisingly close without ever getting to see any of the on-field action.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006)
Director: Douglas Gordon
This ‘portrait’ film takes the novel approach of using 17 different cameras to track just one player throughout an entire 90-minute match, offering an intimate portrayal of footballer in action. And what better player to document than Zinedine Zidane, an enigmatic genius and perhaps the most graceful footballer of his generation?
The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
Director Juan Jose Campanella
A typically raucous Buenos Aires football match is the setting for the standout sequence of crime drama The Secret in Their Eyes – a riveting chase scene in which the camera acrobatically swoops from a bird’s-eye view of the stadium to glide between the chanting fans and eventually end up on the pitch, all in one seemingly uninterrupted five-minute take.
Director Abderrahmane Sissako
When occupying jihadists forbid football in the Malian city of Timbuktu, the locals respond by playing a pretend game with an invisible ball. Like the mimed tennis match in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), it’s a clever cinematic contrivance in which the camera follows an imaginary object, and also a scene of stirring political defiance.
Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven
When her beloved Trabzonspor announce a fixture to be played in front of women only, teenager Lale (Gunes Sensoy) sneaks out of her conservative household to attend. Her ecstatic jumping and dancing amid the similarly jubilant crowd is a thrilling expression of the adrenaline rush that the communal watching of football can bring.