Film

Around the World in 51 Soccer Movies

The whole planet plays it, and the whole planet makes movies about it. A journey through some famous and not-so-famous titles from around the globe.

by

I started off intending to write an article about soccer and cinema, but I wound up writing just as much about poverty, tyranny, and war. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Football has always been tied up with politics, revolution, and social change. It’s the world’s most popular sport, and practically every country — no matter how small its film industry — has a movie about it.  Sometimes these are triumphant tales of overcoming great odds: little kids whose dreams come true, or downtrodden nations finding success at the World Cup. Sometimes they are stories about how even soccer can’t defeat forces of violence and hate; indeed, sometimes the football is a weapon wielded by those very forces. The Beautiful Game can just as often be the ugliest one.

Nevertheless, it’s eye-opening to travel around the world of film and see all the different forms a soccer movie can take, and the role that the sport and the culture around it plays in each society. So with the World Cup coming to a close, I’ve put together a list. I’ve tried to balance it between familiar titles and others that will be new to readers, while also maintaining a mix between fiction and nonfiction. That meant leaving out a few well-known pictures. Of course, there’s no way to be completely authoritative; there are way too many football films from all over the world, and more often than not they don’t get released abroad, or in some cases subtitled. There is one film on this list that I haven’t actually seen; I’m not entirely sure it even exists. But I had to include it.

Anyway, enough caveats. Here are 51 soccer movies from around the world. The country in parenthesis isn’t necessarily the country the film originates from, but the one whose soccer culture is its ostensible subject matter.

17 (Jordan, 2017)

Following a group of Jordanian girls from diverse backgrounds as they prepare to play in the Under-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup, held in Jordan in 2016, Widad Shafakoj’s terrific documentary depicts a country and a society in transition. Many of these young women have been told that this is not a sport for them. Some come from modest backgrounds, others from privilege. Some have been fully Westernized (to the point where they speak Arabic with a heavy accent), while others can barely communicate with their own team’s English technical director. The film briskly goes through their preparations, as well as the excruciating process of trimming the team down to the final squad. The moment of joy and anxiety on the girls’ faces as their bus rolls up to the stadium where the World Cup is being held — as they witness the crowds heading to see them play — is one of the high points of any movie I’ve seen this year.

How to see it: It’s still doing the festival rounds. Write your local film-fest programmer.

***

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (England, 1939)

The British soccer club Arsenal play themselves, but they’re not the stars of this tidy little policier directed by Thorold Dickinson (who made this right before his 1940 classic Gaslight), in which a charity game is cut short when a player on the visiting team drops dead right on the field. The peculiar Inspector Slade (Leslie Banks) — introduced berating a group of policemen in tutus — takes the case, with his bumblingly literal-minded sidekick Sergeant Clinton by his side. The mystery itself isn’t particularly shocking; the real attraction here are Slade’s lovable eccentricities, as well as some strikingly good footballing scenes played out in the real Arsenal stadium.

How to see it: Available on home video, and streaming on YouTube

***

Le Ballon d’Or (Guinea, 1994)

In Cheik Doukouré’s low-key charmer, a young, soccer-obsessed boy finds himself traveling from his sleepy village to the big city to pursue his footballing dreams. The film balances a lively, affectionate portrait of village life without sugarcoating the struggles of poverty and illness. And the surprisingly cheerful atmosphere also provides a bracing alternative to the typical ways that the conflict between sports and real life are often portrayed onscreen.

How to see it: It occasionally screens theatrically: It was part of Film Africa, at BAM, last year. It also appears to be available to stream in France.

***

A Barefoot Dream (South Korea, East Timor, 2010)

A down-and-out Korean ex-soccer star and failed businessman finds himself in East Timor (“the first sovereign state of the 21st century”), where he winds up coaching a group of street kids — first to make a quick buck, and then because he gets inspired. As he struggles to help these poor children while reining in his own worst impulses, he becomes more and more passionate about leading this team — all the way to an improbable run at a youth championship in Hiroshima, Japan. Shot through with moments of broad humor and heavy drama, this Korean film — based on a true story — is just sincere enough to work, thanks in part to committed performances and some genuinely deft soccer moves by the kids.

How to see it: Import DVD

***

Bend It Like Beckham (England, 2002)

It’s become so iconic over the years that some might be surprised to discover that Gurinder Chadha’s coming-of-age film, about a teenager from an Indian family in London joining an all-girls soccer team led by Keira Knightley (and coached by hunky Jonathan Rhys Meyers), wasn’t universally beloved upon first release. Many critics found its view of immigrant families to be somewhat clichéd, even condescending. But the cultural conflicts the film depicts resonated nevertheless, as did its general sense of warmth. The main reason for its success, however, may well be that wonderful cast: Parminder Nagra gleefully conveys the heroine’s pure enthusiasm at experiencing the freedom of the pitch, and Knightley, in the role that put her on the map, does a terrific job as the cool, loyal best friend and teammate with conflicts of her own.

How to see it: Widely available on home video, as well as multiple streaming outlets

***

Black Diamond (Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, 2010)

Pascale Lamche’s harrowing documentary looks at how young soccer players from poor African nations are exploited by an international network of crooked scouts and so-called football academies. The kids are told they’ve been invited by club teams in other countries, and are then charged extravagant amounts of money to secure their travel. Once abroad, they’re often abandoned, with no way to get back home. (In many cases, they become menial laborers in these countries; see The Workers Cup, elsewhere on this list, for a disturbing companion piece.) Interviewing players, families, and sometimes even the scouts and shady officials themselves, Lamche exposes a twisted, disturbing web of connections. Her film is also shot through with surreal imagery and animations — as when a giant blood-sucking spider starts playing alongside a group of teens on a soccer field.

How to see it: Currently streaming on Fandor

***

Center Forward (North Korea, 1978)

This somber North Korean film concerns a young player whose inexperience is dooming his club team, leading to a low-key epidemic of resentment, recrimination, and shame among the players. As such, it could be the setup for a typical underdog story, but the narrative thrust here is a lot more philosophical: Every character is curiously deferential in different ways — at times it feels like everyone is apologizing all the time — and all the interactions seem to be a meditation on the demands of leadership and the best way to get a collective to function. In a recent look at several North Korean films, Kelley Dong observed, “In sporadic doses, co-director Pak [Chang-song] punctuates his repetitive images of breathless athleticism — brisk tracking shots across fields and sporadic zooms into sweaty faces — with impassioned conversations regarding the ethics of leadership.” Though Center Forward obviously steers clear of any real discussion of politics, you can feel a kind of oppressive melancholy in the fact that no character ever seems to step out of line. It’s one of the quietest, least dramatic soccer movies ever made. And yet, it’s also hypnotic.

How to see it: Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video

***

Crab Goalkeeper (a/k/a Kani Goalkeeper) (Japan, 2006)

A blast of pure lunacy from Japan’s auteur of animal-suit comedies, Minoru Kawasaki, this bizarre low-budget cult flick follows the travails of a giant crab that joins a soccer team and becomes a most excellent goalie, what with being a crab and all. But it’s about a lot more than that, as the crab also has to learn valuable life lessons and discover what it means to struggle. The director described it as a riff on Forrest Gump, but there’s more than a little E.T. and Encino Man in there as well.

How to see it: Import DVD

***

The Cup (Bhutan, 1999)

This touching, beautifully shot comedy follows a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks, living in exile in India, as they attempt to find a way to watch the final games of the 1998 World Cup. At first, their monastery’s elders are against the idea: Their life of spiritual contemplation, after all, requires shutting out the world. But gradually, the whole community of believers bands together in discovering a strategy to get a signal — which requires not only obtaining a TV, but also renting a satellite dish in the middle of nowhere and figuring out how it works.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Cup Final (Israel, 1991)

During Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an Israeli soldier is captured by a band of PLO guerrillas. Meanwhile, the World Cup finals are happening in Spain, prompting the soldier and several of his captors — particularly the leader of this small group — to bond over their mutual support of Italy. But don’t mistake this for a movie where soccer bridges divides. Rather, the sport becomes a jumping-off point for other conversations. The soldier has tickets to the Cup games in Spain, including the final championship match; he was all set to go before the war started — a stark reminder of the way politics and the actions of the powerful have an impact on the lives and dreams of ordinary people. As the story proceeds, a different vision of patriotism and solidarity emerges. Director Eran Riklis’s humanistic lens searches for complexity from both character and situation: He elides simple emotions, instead seeking to challenge our feelings and preconceptions.

How to see it: Currently streaming at IsraelFilmCenter.com, and available on DVD through First Run Features

***

The Damned United (England, 2009)

Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Tom Hooper (before he became a perennial mounter of mostly mediocre Oscar-bait), this riveting drama re-creates the doomed 44-day reign of headstrong wunderkind coach Brian Clough (played to perfection by Michael Sheen) at the mighty Leeds United in 1973. Along the way, Clough alienates almost everybody, including his players and his longtime assistant (played with unnerving tenderness by Timothy Spall). It’s a movie about obsession and morality, and it’s also a moving example of the kinds of explosive passions that govern the world of professional football.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Football as Never Before (England, 1971)

Years before the better-known Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (see elsewhere on this list), German filmmaker Hellmuth Costard did essentially the same thing with Manchester United star George Best, training a small army of cameras on the player and filming him over the course of an entire soccer game. The result is a bit less meditative and New Age–y than the Zidane film; Costard’s cameras aren’t quite as close, and his style is less abstract. He seems more interested in the existential spectacle of a man alone on the pitch — fitting, perhaps, as the Belfast-born Best was one of the soccer world’s first international pop celebrities. Watch this together with Zidane, and you’ll see how much soccer — as a game, a vibe, a profession, even a spatial experience — has changed in three decades.

How to see it: Unavailable on home video. A recent restoration suggests a release of some sort may still be in the cards.

***

The Game of Their Lives (North Korea, 2005)

The North Korean national team were the Cinderella story of the 1966 World Cup in England, reaching the quarter-finals after a series of impressive games, among them a stunning humiliation of Italy. This documentary — the rare film offered access to the closed-off country — recounts the squad’s unlikely journey, interviewing many of the players about their experiences, including their unusually warm reception in the working-class town of Middlesbrough. And if you’re looking for insights into the political situation inside this hermit kingdom, you may be surprised: These aging players cry genuine tears over the memory of the country’s then-strongman, Kim Il-Sung, and express how much they miss the dictator who ruled North Korea with an iron fist for decades. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the complete control that Kim and his family (current leader Kim Jong-un is his grandson) continue to hold over the nation, where they are seen more like paternalistic gods rather than mere humans.

How to see it: A version appears to be available on YouTube.

***

Garuda in My Heart (Indonesia, 2009)

This Indonesian hit depicts a thirteen-year-old boy who dreams of playing professionally, following in the footsteps of his late father. With the encouragement of his disabled best friend and the caretaker of a local cemetery, he prepares to try out for a national youth team. But his grandfather is strongly against the idea, preferring that he be an artist instead. The story is on predictable rails here; you get one guess as to whether grandpa relents in the end. But the film offers an interesting glimpse at class assumptions — grandfather’s distaste for soccer seems to be based partly on his belief that it’s beneath them — as well as the confluence of patriotism and sport. The protagonist’s dreams seem to be fueled as much by love of country as by love of soccer. (A sequel followed in 2011.)

How to see it: This never got a release in the U.S. Unsubtitled versions appear to be floating around online.

***

Garrincha, Joy of the People (a/k/a Garrincha, Hero of the Jungle) (Brazil, 1963)

The legendary Cinema Novo director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade made his feature debut with this mesmerizing 1962 documentary about an even greater Brazilian legend: Mane Garrincha, the phenomenal striker from a desperately poor village who somehow turned his bent and misshapen knees into a remarkable asset. Joaquim Pedro’s work has the hallmarks of an essay film. It makes the methodical case for the role of soccer in the lives of Brazilians, and then tries to place Garrincha — who stuck to his provincial roots and beliefs even after achieving superstardom — within the context of a country struggling to find its place in the world.

Where to see it: Kino Lorber will be releasing a boxed set of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade films, including this one, this September. (Woohoo!)

***

Goal! The Dream Begins (United States, England, 2005)

It is perhaps a symptom of our times that when FIFA decided to put its power behind a flashy soccer movie that would help popularize the sport in major markets like the United States, it decided to do so with a trilogy. Why bother with a mere movie when you can have a quality-diluting franchise? The first in the series, Goal! The Dream Begins, is, despite being riddled with every sports-movie cliché in the book, surprisingly effective. Its tale of an undocumented Mexican immigrant in Los Angeles (who had crossed the border as a child clutching a soccer ball) being discovered and then joining Newcastle United plays like every young player’s fantasy come true. The second film, which had the character making a move to Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, was shallower and glitzier, but somehow still worked as a feverish journey through the world of big-time football. The less said about the third film, which actually shifted focus from our hero to his Real Madrid teammates as they made their way through the World Cup, the better. (That one went straight to video.) Even so, these films retain quite a bit of anthropological interest. Filled with celebrity-player cameos, produced under FIFA’s stewardship, and featuring all sorts of ridiculously tight games that always seem to come down to a stunning final goal, they are a window into how the official world of soccer sees itself — not as a Beautiful Game or a form of social communion, but as a flashy spectacle enlivened by cheap soap opera.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Hermano (Venezuela, 2010)

This brutal Venezuelan drama follows two talented soccer-playing stepbrothers — one an earnest dreamer, the other a violent nihilist — in a Caracas slum as their lives are thrown into disarray after their mom is accidentally shot dead. The younger, more innocent brother witnesses the crime. The murderer is the goalie of their team, as well as the older brother’s best friend. Does our hero tell his hair-trigger sibling the truth about mom’s killer? Will they be able to iron out their differences in time to try out for a major Caracas club? Here is a movie where soccer can provide a potential path out of a harsh reality, but can also just as easily entrap the characters in their ruthless, violent milieu.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Infinite Football (Romania, 2018)

Corneliu Porumboiu is most-known for his fiction features, but this is his second soccer documentary so far, and it’s a doozy. The great Romanian director interviews a childhood friend and soccer player–turned–bureaucrat who has been spending the last several decades attempting to reimagine the rules of football — right down to the way the field is shaped and divided. The subject is an obsessive, and his elaborate reconceptions of the soccer pitch and its players are beyond eccentric. But Porumboiu is not here to mock him. His camera is an affectionate one, and, as we absorb the subject’s elaborate and dense ideas, we may sense that he’s struggling with competing impulses: the need for control versus utopian idealism. As a result, this playful, deadpan movie helps us better understand how sometimes the best of intentions can create the most oppressive and strange of systems.

How to see it: It’s currently doing the festival rounds.

***

Istanbul United (Turkey, 2014)

It turns out that one of the best documentaries about modern Turkey is a soccer movie. Well, sort of. Farid Eslam and Oliver Waldhauer’s film starts off charting the explosive and violent rivalry between the die-hard fans of Istanbul’s three major sports teams — Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, Besiktas — but then turns political when these fans unite in support of the Gezi Park protests of 2013. Once mobilized, these fan groups — angry, organized, and experienced at evading riot police — came to play an increasingly important role in the Turkish resistance, especially after the protests were violently broken up by the authorities. Beautifully shot and grippingly put-together, Istanbul United shows how these warring fans who once hated each other with a passion came together in service of a greater cause. But the film doesn’t sugarcoat their awakening. By the end, the rage — spittle-flecked, red-faced, foul-mouthed — is still there and ready to be directed, be it toward a sports team, a government, or an entire political system.

How to see it: Currently streaming via multiple sources

***

Italia 90 (Costa Rica, 2014)

This film follows the Costa Rican national team during their trip to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Delving into the players’ diverse personal lives with a mix of warmth, humor, and pain, it finds poignancy in their anxiety about their big moment on the world stage. They keep having anxious, stylized visions of what might happen on the field — including what could go horribly wrong. Bonus points for some ghastly, period-authentic early-Nineties fashions and hair styles.

How to see it: An unsubtitled version is currently streaming via multiple sources.

***

Kick Off (Iraq, 2009)

A group of Iraqi Kurdish refugees, living in the ruins of a town that’s been demolished by war, decide to hold a youth soccer tournament in an abandoned sports stadium, bringing together Iraqis, Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians. Like many movies from the region during this time, this one mixes comedy and tragedy, showing the vaguely ridiculous complications of bureaucracy and tradition and historical rivalries, while also conveying the constant threat of violence. That one of the main characters in the film is a suicidal teenage amputee merely adds to the overall sense of despair and dread.

How to see it: Import DVD

***

Kill Octopus Paul (China, 2010)

OK, I haven’t actually seen this one — I’m even beginning to doubt it actually exists — but there is literally no way I wasn’t including it here. Apparently it’s a movie about a group of people uncovering an illegal international betting ring that involves the notorious octopus that famously predicted the outcome of all those World Cup games in South Africa.

How to see it: Beats me. Drop a line if you hear of a DVD somewhere.

***

Ladies’ Turn (Senegal, 2012)

Hélène Harder’s elegant documentary looks at the attempts to create and sustain a women’s soccer tournament in Senegal. The effort is a grassroots operation, involving a small handful of fans and activists who do everything from buying snacks for games to dealing with crippling bureaucracy and social pushback. What comes through most strongly, however, is the good-natured, enthusiastic resilience of these women against what are at times unthinkable odds.

How to see it: Though the film premiered in 2012, it continues to do festival rounds and other special screenings.

***

Maradona by Kusturica (Argentina, 2008)

During the late Eighties and early-to-mid-Nineties, the Serbian director Emir Kusturica was one of the world’s great filmmakers. Around that same time, Diego Maradona was the world’s greatest footballer. In this strange little documentary, Kusturica goes off in search of the Argentine superstar, whose life was riddled with scandal, addiction, and health problems, both during and after his reign as a soccer god. For Kusturica — who had a major falling out with the West over the war in Yugoslavia and its aftermath — Maradona’s power as a revolutionary, anti-colonial figure is of primary interest. (This is a soccer player, after all, who has Fidel Castro tattooed on his arm and Che Guevara tattooed on his leg.) The film constantly replays Maradona’s famous second World Cup goal against England, followed by awkward animations of him beheading, burying, and otherwise humiliating Western political figures (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Ronald Reagan). But somehow, it’s more than a polemic. There’s something poignant about Kusturica’s attempts to connect with the legendary player, as if he’s trying to reframe his own artistic legacy. An extremely strange, complicated, fascinating movie, about two extremely strange, complicated, fascinating individuals.

How to see it: Available on import DVD

***

Mean Machine (England, 2001)

It got savaged by critics as the time, but Barry Skolnick’s very British take on The Longest Yard is surprisingly entertaining. Former England captain Vinnie Jones is now in the Burt Reynolds–Adam Sandler part, as the superstar player who lands in prison and has to put together a team of misfits to play against the guards in a game that’s rigged from the get-go by corrupt warden David Hemmings. OK, it mostly treads water until the end, but what a final game — a kaleidoscope of technique, violence, and cinematic style that feels true to the cacophony and the eclectic insanity of soccer, even though you can’t really learn any real moves from it. (Certainly not legal ones.) Most Valuable Player has to go to Jason Statham, as the prison team’s roaring, lunatic goalie.

How to see it: Available on home video, streaming, and Showtime

***

Men in the Arena (Somalia, 2017)

This documentary follows two young members of the Somali national team as their country continues to be ripped apart by the vestiges of civil war. The extremist terror group Al-Shabab — which used the national stadium as a venue for torture and beheadings — has only recently been vanquished from this region, and every member of the Somali team has experienced unimaginable loss during the war. One of the film’s subjects plays for a club team in Nigeria, where he often faces discrimination because of the chaos back home; the other plays for a club team in Mogadishu, where unrest, lack of resources, and a failing infrastructure make life hell. Each wants to escape their reality. Shot over multiple years, J.R. Biersmith’s documentary depicts a turbulent and momentous period in the lives of these young men, capturing both their love of the sport and their attempts to achieve a better life.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Messi (Argentina, 2014)

Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia’s documentary about the Argentine superstar offers a novel twist on the standard talking-heads picture. The interviewees — which include Messi’s coaches, fellow players, childhood friends, and elementary school teachers — sit at tables in a restaurant, dining and drinking and conversing with one another. This creates an organic, informal atmosphere, complete with disagreements, speculations, and gossip. Intercut with these chats are home movies from the player’s remarkable rise — he was a wunderkind even as a small child — as well as re-enactments of key periods in Messi’s life, including the time when he moved to the Spanish club Barcelona as a thirteen-year-old, because they were the only ones willing to pay for the growth treatments he needed to combat his unusually short size. The result is a surprisingly tender look at the inner life of a man who may well be the world’s greatest player.

How to see it: Currently streaming in an unsubtitled version on Amazon Prime. A subtitled version is available in the U.K. on iTunes.

***

Miracle of Bern (Germany, 2003)

This sentimental historical drama traces the German national team’s stunning victory in the 1954 World Cup — whose final saw them defeating a seemingly invincible Hungarian team that had blown them out just weeks earlier — through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy struggling with the return of his ex-soldier father from eleven years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. Germany’s unlikely championship becomes symbolic of the country’s own attempts to recover from the devastation and shame of World War II, as well as its division as a result of Cold War brinksmanship. Intercut with the family drama are scenes of the national team, seen through the eyes of young striker Helmut Rahn, as well as a somewhat awkward storyline featuring a young journalist sent to Switzerland to cover the Cup, with his boisterous new wife tagging along. But the father-son relationship is where this film comes to life. Watching the two of them — a shy boy with big dreams, and a broken patriarch out of step with his times — find a way to communicate through soccer is genuinely touching.

How to see it: Available on import DVD and Blu-ray

***

Offside (Iran, 2006)

In Jafar Panahi’s masterpiece, a group of young Iranian female soccer fans dress up as boys in an attempt to circumvent the country’s strict laws against women watching men’s sporting events and attend a World Cup qualifying game between Iran and Bahrain. At the stadium, they’re caught and held in a pen, watched over by young soldiers doing their military service. Offside is incisive about the way authoritarianism works. Along the way, the women come in contact with men who can see that they’re in disguise yet do nothing about it — because it’s no big deal to them if women attend the match or not. Even the soldiers guarding them don’t see a problem with their watching the game. But the toxic, strangling oppression of the law is in the very air they breathe. Of course it was banned in Iran, and of course director Panahi has been under various forms of house arrest for years now. It’s a riveting work — among the finest examples of Iranian cinema, and one of the best films released anywhere in the last fifteen years.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (United States, 2006)

This exuberant documentary, narrated by Matt Dillon and cut to the pop textures of the late Seventies, recounts the dizzying, star-studded rise and fall of the Cosmos soccer club. At a time when interest in soccer in the U.S. was virtually nil, the team was bought by Warner Communications chief and avowed soccer fiend Steve Ross, who poured money into the project and brought aging Brazilian superstar Pelé to New York to play for the team. Despite initial skepticism, the Cosmos went on a tear, playing to huge stadium crowds, before the league imploded due to poor TV ratings and various forms of duplicity. This offers a fascinating look at a bright, shining, all-too-brief moment when the U.S. suddenly seemed to catch the soccer craze.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Pelé: Birth of a Legend (Brazil, 2016)

Although it was executive-produced by Pelé himself (who also has a cameo), there’s more than a little fairy tale mixed in with this hyper-stylized and often simplistic biopic about the Brazilian soccer legend’s early years and his rise from impoverished village tyke to teenage World Cup phenomenon. But this attempt to turn Pelé’s life into a frenetic, Slumdog Millionaire–esque melodrama also manages to be quite entertaining and ultimately even moving. The film portrays how Pelé helped reconnect Brazilian soccer to its traditional “ginga” roots, as the national team abandoned their ill-fated attempt to impose a European-style discipline to their playing. The music-video razzle-dazzle of the soccer scenes doesn’t entirely do justice to the aesthetics of what Pelé himself termed “The Beautiful Game” — why embellish the players’ already-lovely moves with so much cinematic pyrotechnics? — but they do lend it a kind of mythic grandeur. And I dare anyone not to tear up at least a little during the climatic depiction of Brazil’s legendary 5–2 win over Sweden (whose coach is played by a hilariously nasty Colm Meaney) in the 1958 World Cup final.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

People of Nejmeh (Lebanon, 2015)

For many years, Lebanon’s Nejmeh football club symbolized diversity and tolerance in a country that was becoming divided along sectarian lines; unlike other clubs, it was not seen as belonging to one faith, or ethnicity, or political party. Even during the country’s darkest days, Nejmeh players who belonged to rival factions were able to put their differences aside in the name of soccer. Could it last? As the years progressed, the club became subject to the whims of powerful political forces — not unlike Lebanon itself as it became a pawn in the battle between bigger Middle Eastern powers and other geopolitical players. This evocative, incredibly moving documentary follows the club’s storied and turbulent history, interviewing some of its earliest officials and players, and lamenting what has happened to it over the years.

How to see it: Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video

***

Rudo y Cursi (Mexico, 2008)

In Carlos Cuaron’s wild tragicomedy, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna play impoverished half-brothers whose bewildering soccer talents are seized upon by a sleazy scout who brings them to Mexico City to become professionals, thereby pretty much ruining their lives. Luna becomes a superstar goalie, while García Bernal becomes a celebrity striker. But gambling catches up with one, and life in the fast lane catches up with the other. Tonally all over the place but entertaining nevertheless — “at once smooth and frantic, filled with cozy clutter and vulgar jive,” was how J. Hoberman described it — the film wisely avoids showing us much soccer until the finale, when the brothers, each feeling the pressure of outside influences, have to face off in a climactic match. Luna is defending a perfect season of not allowing any goals, while García Bernal is trying to remedy a crippling scoring drought. Neither of them wants to go through with it. Indeed, the beautiful game for each of them has become a curse by this point.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Return to Homs (Syria, 2013)

This is not a soccer movie at all, but a searing, unflinching look at the war in Syria from the perspective of Abdul Basset Saroot, a former Syrian national goalkeeper who became a key leader in the resistance against Bashar al-Assad. There have been a number of works to come from this conflict, but Return to Homs is among the most disturbing: This is a film in which we see dead bodies everywhere, people getting shot onscreen, battlefield surgeries. Abdul Basset himself is wounded twice, and narrowly escapes death multiple times. (Others aren’t so lucky.) It’s gut-wrenching to watch this earnest young man go from a beloved figure excited by the idea of democracy and freedom to a desperate warrior on the run, a man who has seen unimaginable loss and is more than willing — indeed, even expecting — to die for his cause.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

See You in Montevideo (Serbia, 2014)

The Yugoslav national team was one of only four European teams to compete in the very first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930. (Traveling all the way to Latin America wasn’t so easy back then.) This handsomely produced and somewhat fictionalized historical comedy-drama follows the team as they arrive in this foreign land, are looked down upon by their rivals, and promptly kick butt against surprising odds. Meanwhile, one player finds love; another tries to find new meaning in the sport; and a shady American promoter (played by an awesomely hammy Armand Assante) tries to get them to leave their homeland and come play in the United States. This was a sequel to 2010’s Montevideo, God Bless You!, about the team’s attempts to get to the World Cup.

How to see it: An import DVD is available

***

Shaolin Soccer (Hong Kong, 2001)

Stephen Chow’s delirious action fantasy, about a Shaolin master who tries to promote kung fu by putting together a soccer team that will combine the beautiful game with martial-arts magic, is wish fulfillment par excellence for any fan of the sport  By taking elements of soccer to absurdist extremes, Chow creates a universe filled with the kinds of what-ifs that crowd the imaginations of young players the world over: Tasmanian Devil–like dribbles; kicks of such immense power that they combust and destroy everything in their path; and a sense of camaraderie through which even the most surreal odds are overcome by teamwork that turns every player into a superhero.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Shooting for Socrates (Northern Ireland, 2014)

Northern Ireland’s unlikely journey to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico — a time when the country was still sharply divided along political and religious lines — gets a curiously comic treatment in James Erskine’s film. The politics are kept to a minimum as we see a country coming together to cheer on a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time bunch of players. It’s a touching little movie, with all the moves of an underdog sports flick but none of the usual clichés. Northern Ireland didn’t fare particularly well at this World Cup — the only time they made it that far — and the characters in the film spend much of the time dreading their game against Brazil. (The Socrates of the title is Brazil’s then-star player and captain, who also happened to be a big political figure back home, as the country was emerging from tyranny.) The odd result makes for an interesting premise: We watch a team of players who aren’t all that good still manage to unite the hopes and dreams of a nation that is otherwise tearing itself apart.

How to see it: An import DVD is available.

***

A Shot at Glory (Scotland, 2000)

So, what if I told you there was a movie out there in which Robert Duvall stars as the Glaswegian coach of an underdog Scottish soccer team owned by Michael Keaton? And that it was … well, not terrible, and even occasionally rousing? A Shot at Glory plays like history, but it’s actually a fictional tale, about a down-and-out team from the small town of Kilnockie that has just been relegated to the second division. The rich new owner wants to move the team to Dublin; the young American goalie (Cole Hauser) doesn’t know what he’s doing; and the team’s latest acquisition, a talented but bratty and potentially over-the-hill striker (played by real Scots soccer legend Ally McCoist), isn’t getting along with the gruff, temperamental coach, who used to be his father-in-law. The soap opera and the underdog sports tale intermingle awkwardly, but Duvall is terrific — despite (or maybe because of?) the fact that he sports one of the craziest and most inconsistent accents ever put to film. It’s hard not to get mixed up in the nutty drama of this dysfunctional team from a sleepy village making it to the big leagues.

How to see it: Available on home video

***

Soccer Fans (Slovakia, 1961)

This engaging comedy follows three friends as they conspire to shirk professional and family duties to watch the Czechoslovak national team play Brazil in Vienna. They’re a fairly annoying trio, and it might take some time to realize that they’re actually supposed to be somewhat annoying, as we see them jumping through assorted hoops to try and make it to Vienna. The best part is when one of them consumes soap, coffee, and chalk as part of what he insists is a foolproof way to get himself sick and avoid coming to work. He succeeds a little too well, and winds up being carted away in an ambulance.

How to see it: Sadly, no subtitled version appears to be available.

***

Stubby (a/k/a The Butt) (Sweden, 1974)

Bo Widerberg was one of the essential directors of Swedish cinema, a visionary who brought grit and social engagement to his nation’s filmmaking after it had spent years under the shadow of Ingmar Bergman and his imitators. He had already been nominated for two Oscars and released his huge international hit Elvira Madigan by the time he made this curious family film, about a boy with unreal football powers who becomes a professional player and makes it all the way to the national team, much to the bewilderment and consternation of the adult players around him. It’s a delightfully odd and cheerful little comedy — in many ways, nothing like Widerberg’s other, better-known films. And it seems to be the template for many other little-boy-with-magical-sports-powers movies that came after. (Is it possible the people who made Like Mike saw this?)

How to see it: It’s available through an import Bo Widerberg DVD boxed set.

***

Sunday Ball (Brazil, 2015)

In the summer of 2014, as the World Cup unfolded in Brazil, teams fielded by Rio’s favelas met for their own tournament played not far from Maracana stadium. Director Eryk Rocha (son of Brazilian filmmaking icon Glauber Rocha) follows the course of a heavily fought championship game, starting with a mesmeric opening shot of a player refreshing the chalk outlines in the center of the field. This is one of the few documentaries to truly capture the immediacy and grace of soccer, as Rocha’s cameras follow the ball and the players up close. The film portrays one specific match, but it does not unfold in real time; instead, Rocha finds a kind of rhythmic, emotional linearity, occasionally doubling back with aestheticized reveries on the players, their injuries, their exhaustion, their frustration. He contracts and expands time brilliantly, as with an extended sequence where a heated argument with the referee is played out in elegant slow-motion, with a Puccini aria on the soundtrack. It’s certainly one of the finest soccer films ever made — even if to call it a soccer film undersells it.

How to see it: Currently streaming on Fandor

***

Tomka and His Friends (Albania, 1977)

OK, I’m cheating here, because this isn’t really a soccer movie. But the struggle of sports against authoritarianism — a common theme, it seems — is ever-present in this rousing Albanian classic, about a group of kids during WWII in the picturesque town of Berat who discover that the Germans have taken over their soccer field. The kids — an assortment of ages, along with their beloved dog and one goat — just want to play. But when confronted with the fact that the Germans won’t let them, they join up with the local partisans to rain holy hell on the fascist invaders.

How to see it: Recently restored by the Albanian Film Archive and Library of Congress, it’s available on YouTube.

***

The Two Escobars (Colombia, 2010)

To those of us who were following international soccer in the Nineties, the Colombian national team was an unforgettable phenomenon, with their flamboyant players; explosive, unpredictable offense (they had a goalie who’d join the attack and score goals against the opposing team!); and magnificent run of victories in the lead-up to the 1994 World Cup. What many of us didn’t know — even though it was apparently an open secret in Colombia — was that drug money was partly responsible for the rise of the country’s soccer profile during this period. This documentary tells the interlinked and poignant story of two men who weren’t related but shared the same name. Pablo Escobar was the notorious, soccer-mad head of the Medellín drug cartel, and one of the richest men on Earth — a murderous kingpin to some, a Robin Hood–style folk hero to others. Andrés Escobar was the charismatic and extremely grounded defensive maestro and captain of the Colombian national team; he also happened to be the unfortunate soul who accidentally scored an own goal during a World Cup game against the U.S., and wound up shot dead on the streets of Medellín not long after. Through the intertwined stories of these men, this documentary, part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, portrays the fascinating rise and tragic fall of Colombian soccer, as well as the bloody costs of the drug business in the Nineties.

How to see it: Available on home video, and via ESPN

***

Two Half-Times in Hell (a/k/a The Last Goal) (Hungary, 1961)

One of the most powerful, not to mention influential, sports films ever made, Zoltán Fábri’s wartime thriller follows a group of prisoners in Nazi-occupied Hungary who are ordered to play a game of soccer against the Germans to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. A former soccer star–turned–prisoner is enlisted to put together the squad. He entices some of his fellow captives, most of whom have never played in their lives, with the promise of extra food and a reprieve from back-breaking labor. Do they escape? Do they play? What will happen to them after the game? Will the Nazis even tolerate losing? It’s a harrowing, emotionally devastating work, and impressively manages to avoid platitudes about the power of soccer to heal or bring people together; it does no such thing in this thrilling, depressing film.

How to see it: Import DVD

***

Underdogs (Argentina, 2013)

I still can’t tell if the Weinstein Company ever gave this, originally called Foosball, a proper release. An animated film from Argentina’s Juan José Campanella, who had previously won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for the political thriller The Secret in Their Eyes, it’s a comic fantasy about a young man attempting to save his town from a zillionaire soccer hotshot, with the help of a foosball table whose figures have come to life. It’s an adorable movie, filled with in-jokes about the world of soccer that may admittedly fly over the heads of kids and most American viewers. (Maybe that’s why its release kept getting delayed.)

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Vasermil (Israel, 2007)

Three troubled teens in southern Israel — an embittered Russian émigré, a violent pizza delivery boy from a broken family, and an Ethiopian Rastafarian — are forced to join a local youth soccer team under the tutelage of a hard-ass coach who promises to make men of them. This could have resulted in a treacly movie about cross-cultural understanding (just try to imagine what the American version of this might be like), but director Mushon Salmona avoids the typical clichés of growth. Instead, he shows the more subtle ways these kids gain some sort of rough respect for one another, without ever letting any of the characters off the hook.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

Victory (England, 1981)

Once upon a time, this was the only soccer movie that came to anyone’s mind when asked about the subgenre. Oddly enough, it was a remake — of Zoltán Fábri’s superior 1961 classic Two Half-Times in Hell, also known as The Last Goal. (See elsewhere on this list.) Though much loathed by critics at the time of release, John Huston’s World War II thriller, about a group of Allied prisoners of war forced by the Nazis to play a game against a team of German professionals in a Paris stadium, is loads of fun if you don’t take it too seriously. (And really, how seriously can one take a movie that presents a choice between finishing a game of soccer or escaping the fucking Nazis as a morally challenging one?) Michael Caine is the former West Ham striker who’s been charged with putting together a team; much of the rest of the cast is made up of soccer royalty, none bigger than Pelé himself, who plays a soldier from Trinidad. Sylvester Stallone plays the escape-happy American who eagerly wants to be goalie but can’t seem to understand the basics of the game.

How to see it: Available on home video and streaming

***

We Must Go (Egypt, 2014)

After losing his job at the head of the U.S. men’s national team, Bob Bradley was named head coach of the Egyptian national soccer team — at a point when the country was still wrestling with the uncertainty brought about by the revolution that began in Tahrir Square and led to the ousting of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak. Egyptian league games had been suspended and the national team was forced to play to empty stadiums, as putting tens of thousands of people together in a sports arena was deemed too risky by authorities. Even so, Bradley attempts to whip these players into shape, hoping to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1990. With the aging Mohamed Aboutrika postponing his retirement, and talented young firecracker Mohamed Salah (now at Liverpool and among the premier players in the world) showing promise, these men have some cause for hope. Even so, the political situation in Egypt gets worse, particularly after the 2012 Port Said stadium riot, which killed 74 people and injured hundreds. This is an intensely dramatic film — part underdog sports movie, part political tragedy, part historical document — showing the kind of political and social power the game of soccer has around the world and how it can be a force for both unity and division. (Note: Around this time, another documentary about Bradley’s time in Egypt came out through PBS, called American Pharaoh. I haven’t seen that one, but it appears to be a more intimate look at the life of Bradley and his family during this turbulent period.)

How to see it: Available to stream from multiple sources

***

When Saturday Comes (England, 1996)

In Maria Giese’s sensitive drama, Sean Bean plays a ferociously talented but undisciplined soccer player from a mining town who lives at home with his alcoholic gambler father, long-suffering mom, and wide-eyed soccer-nut brother. A chance to play for a small local team (led by a tough-as-nails Pete Postlethwaite) leads to a tryout for Sheffield United. But will our hero be defeated by the demons of drink, fear, and rage? It’s a surprisingly gritty and supremely well-acted tale, in which a familiar, occasionally melodramatic story is tempered by a nuanced understanding of addiction and the psychological blocks that prevent us from achieving our goals. Added bonus: a transcendent Emily Lloyd as the co-worker who falls for our hero.

How to see it: Import DVD

***

The Workers Cup (Qatar, 2018)

If all goes according to plan, Qatar will be hosting the 2022 World Cup; the country is undergoing a massive construction boom in preparation. Much of the work is being done by more than 1.6 million immigrant laborers, most of them living in almost slave-like conditions — they’re underpaid, overworked, and not allowed to quit or leave the country. In 2016, Qatar organized a soccer tournament made up of 24 teams fielded by some of the biggest construction firms in the country; the players were the workers themselves. Adam Sobel’s powerful documentary follows one team as it makes its way through the tournament, showing us how the players are torn between loyalty toward their team and frustration at the predicament in which they find themselves. In so doing the film forces us to interrogate the ways in which the excitement and allegiance bred by competitive sports can force us to ignore the dark side of the corporations, countries, and organizations involved. (Case in point: Watching the FIFA World Cup, brought to you by one of the most corrupt organizations in the world of sports.)

How to see it: Released theatrically in the U.S. last month, it’s also available through PBS as well as other streaming sources.

***

Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait (France, 2006)

Using seventeen cameras, this mostly wordless experimental documentary follows, in real time, French midfield god Zinedine Zidane over the course of a 2005 match between his team, Real Madrid, and Villarreal. Watching one of the best ever over the course of a full ninety-minute match, we see the focus and sense both the tedium and exhaustion. Zidane doesn’t touch the ball nearly that much; most of his time is spent waiting, watching, anticipating. The quick bursts when he does get the ball are filled with a rapid-fire, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it poetry. Even at the end, when Zidane is red-carded and ejected from the game for punching a rival player during a brief melee, we don’t quite catch what happened. (It does, however, provide an intriguing echo of Zidane’s infamous last game, the 2006 World Cup final against Italy, when he got sent off at the end for head-butting Marco Materazzi.) The film allows us to get as close as possible to one of the greatest athletes of all time, but still preserves his mystery.

How to see it: Import Blu-ray and DVD

 

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