Football has never translated easily to the big screen. Many have tried but few have succeeded. With the FIFA World Cup now in full flow, here’s a look at those who tried to introduce the beautiful game to the world of cinema.
Escape to Victory (1981) Where better to start than with this old favourite? Allied prisoners of war are to face a German team in a match of football. As the title may suggest, they utilise this occasion as a chance to hatch a plan of escape. Starring a mad combination of iconic actors – Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Max Von Sydow – and iconic footballers Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, Mike Summerbee and some bloke called Pelé, it’s always an entertaining watch when it inevitably pops up on Channel 5 again. The football itself has actually rarely been done better since. Cleverly tending to focus on individual players rather than wide shots of the pitch, there’s some good dribbling and interplay on show. Even Stallone kind of looks at home as a goalkeeper.
Sean Bean plays Jimmy Muir, Sheffield’s answer to Rocky Balboa, in this rags-to-riches tale about a non-league footballer who makes it at Sheffield United. Brimming with heart, the film tackles parenthood, addiction, love and grief. Featuring great performances from Bean and Pete Postlethwaite, it’s a grittier, more authentic take on the game than we’re used to seeing. Plus you get to try and figure out which spots in the Steel City they used to film – reyt good. There’s even talk, over 20 years on, of a sequel. Hopefully it won’t be long until Sheffield lad Bean puts his Blades kit back on.
“Ladies and gentlemen, England will be playing four-four-fucking-two.” In some ways the quintessential football movie, Mike Bassett is a must-watch for any England fan in the build up to an international tournament. The satirical comedy sees Ricky Tomlinson’s underqualified manager given the responsibility to take England to the World Cup. It’s a very funny, quite nuanced parody of all the tropes which come with the national team, the press and the fans. Worth it purely for a top class Benson and Hedges gag.
This spin on 70s American movie The Mean Machine (which was later remade with The Longest Yard) sees disgraced international footballer Danny Meehan (Vinnie Jones) coach a team of inmates to face the guards. Vinnie Jones is a strong lead for a story practically perfect for him. He’s part of a great ensemble cast with Vas Blackwood, David Kelly, Danny Dyer and Omid Djalili all putting in good shifts. The highlight though, is without a doubt Jason Statham’s psychopathic goalkeeper ‘Monk’. Also features the best commentators in football-film history.
The first in a trilogy of films which all lost money, the Goal series is comfortably the glitziest entry on this list, having been made in cooperation with both FIFA and Adidas. The original follows Santiago Muñez, a poor Mexican boy from LA who signs for Newcastle United. In the second he gets a big money move to Real Madrid and, finally, the third sees Muñez miss out on the World Cup through injury and move back to England to play for Tottenham. They’ve got more cameos than a Nike advert, with Shearer, Beckham and Zidane just some of the big names that feature. Despite being weirdly iconic though, they aren’t very good.
This surprisingly rare example of a football biopic charts Brian Clough’s 44-day reign as manager of Leeds United. Director Tom Hopper has since gone on to make The King’s Speech (for which he won a Best Directing Oscar), Les Misérables and The Danish Girl, and his casting of Michael Sheen as Clough was an absolute masterstroke. The actual kick-ball on show is very minimal as the Welshman’s performance of the enigmatic, mercurial character takes centre stage. If Cloughy himself was writing this list, he’d probably say something along the lines of: “I wouldn’t say it was the best film ever made. But it’s in the top one.”