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6 Essential football films

BY Jamie Flook

8th Aug 2022 Film & TV

6 Essential football films

Hooliganism, drug cartels, and an escape from the Nazis—these gripping true life stories reveal why the beautiful game is so much more than a sport

Football is older than cinema, yet until relatively recently it had only been sporadically picked out as a potential source of interesting subject matter for films.

Nowadays that is no longer the case, as some film-makers have started looking to the sport for inspiring stories that will resonate beyond stadiums and football itself.

Since August marks the beginning of the football season, we thought we’d offer up a selection of essential football films that are as much human interest stories as they are tales about football.

Life, death, love, laughter and the full spectrum of the human condition are on offer here. Without further ado, let’s kick-off!

Escape To Victory

John Huston’s energetic Second World War prison camp drama sees the Nazis plan an exhibition match as a propaganda stunt, featuring a team of Germans against allied prisoners of war.

The POWs plan to use this game as a means of escape.

An all-star cast featuring Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Pele, Bobby Moore, Max Von Sydow and Ossie Ardiles gave it star appeal when it was released in 1981.

"Pele hit the ball at Sylvester Stallone so hard that he broke a finger trying to stop it"

Stallone played a goalkeeper in this film. A few years ago at an event in London, he recounted how Pele hit the ball at him so hard that he broke a finger trying to stop it.

If you don’t take it too seriously, it’s an entertaining romp that for many years was one of the only football-themed films that regularly turned up in TV listings.

The Damned United

Sometimes it can be healthy or even inspiring to hear about failure, especially when it is somebody who went on to achieve huge success in their chosen field.

Brian Clough was a charismatic but hugely controversial individual who achieved footballing immortality by turning small provincial football clubs into major trophy-winning teams.

The Damned United doesn’t cover his glory days and instead focuses on Clough’s time as manager of Leeds United, which was troubled to say the least.

Michael Sheen arguably gives the performance of a lifetime by basically morphing into Clough and bringing out the maverick side of his character, while also showcasing some of his flaws.

The Two Escobars

Going into the USA ’94 World Cup, Colombia were hotly tipped to win the tournament after a long run of brilliant performances in the two years leading up to the competition.

They had qualified for only two of the previous fourteen World Cups, and the country was struggling with armed conflict at the time, so the 1994 World Cup brought hope to millions of Colombians that something magical was about to happen.

"Defender Andrés Escobar was shot dead upon his return to Colombia"

Hope turned to dismay. They had a mysteriously disastrous tournament that ended in tragedy when defender Andrés Escobar was shot dead upon his return to Colombia.

In this thoroughly absorbing documentary film, we learn the astonishing truth about the psychological terror that the Colombian players were experiencing behind the scenes at USA ’94.

We also learn of the connections that existed between Colombian football, the drugs cartels and the deaths of both Andrés Escobar and cartel leader Pablo Escobar.

The Keeper

This 2018 British-German collaboration tells the incredible true life redemption story of paratrooper Bert Trautmann, who was captured by the allies during the Second World War and eventually transferred as a POW to England.

A capable footballer, Trautmann was talent-spotted by Manchester City. But when they signed him in 1949, they faced a wave of resentment from people not happy that they had signed a former member of the German military.

By the time Trautmann retired in 1964, he was considered a hero of English football.

Although The Keeper has some sad moments, it is mostly a feel-good film with plenty of light-hearted warmth, as we see a changing society embrace somebody previously considered an enemy.

Green Street

This underrated gem has Elijah Wood playing a young American who gets caught up in the violent world of British football hooliganism.

The violence might be too much for some, but it does serve to unsettle the viewer and bring home just how savage football hooliganism can be. The director Lexi Alexander was previously a world karate champion so she knew a thing or two about fighting.

Green Street shows the tribal mentality that can take hold when angry people with a penchant for violence find acceptance among one another.

Diego Maradona

A revolutionary hero to some and a dastardly villain to others, this film pieces together unseen footage from the life of Diego Maradona to shine a light on his meteoric rise and fall.

"This is a fascinating insight into what happened when Maradona moved to Naples, a city living under the shadow of the mafia"

A footballing genius whose stardom transcended football, this is a fascinating insight into what happened when Maradona moved to Naples, a city that was crying out for a hero while living under the shadow of the mafia.

Director Asif Kapadia directed both Amy and Senna, so if you liked those films, you’ll love this one.

Read more: Excerpt: Ultras

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