On November 20, the Football World Cup began, sending the United Kingdom and much of the rest of the world into a frenzy.
With England and Wales battling it out in the early rounds, and with hundreds of stories circulating the internet about every component of the controversial competition (its Qatari location, the OneLove captain’s armbands, the rules around alcohol, the migrant deaths, teams not singing their national anthems, David Beckham’s deal), as well as the actual games themselves, you might very well have already reached your football quota.
But if you haven’t, or if you in fact feel bereft in the lull between the matches, a tonne of fantastic films have been released over the years about the beautiful game. So here’s our round-up, in no particular order, of the top 10 best football films.
This film from the now-imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi could not be more relevant. Panahi was inspired by his daughter when he made this film about a group of young women who want to go to a football match, though they are forbidden by the state. The story follows a girl’s attempts to support her team anyway. In 2006, the film won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and was the official selection for both the New York and Toronto International Film Festivals the same year.
In August, one of the minimal concessions Iran made in the response to the country-wide protests was letting a limited number of women in Tehran into a stadium to watch a football match (where they were seated separately from the men and asked to wear headscarves).
The Damned United (2009)
From award-winning director Tom Hooper (before the Cats debacle), and adapted by Peter Morgan (now best known as the showrunner of The Crown), this sports drama based on David Peace’s 2006 best-seller, is a reimagining of Brian Clough’s tenure of Leeds United in 1974.
While it didn’t prove a box-office smash, it has built a real fanbase over the years. Starring Michael Sheen as Brian Clough, Timothy Spall as assistant manager Peter Taylor, Colm Meaney as England manager Don Revie and Jim Broadbent as Derby County chairman Sam Longson.
Gregory’s Girl (1980)
Once you have watched Gregory’s Girl it will forever have a place in your heart. Written and directed by Bill Forsyth and starring John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory, Dee Hepburn as Dorothy and Clare Grogan as Susan, the film is about awkward teenager Gregory who gets replaced by Dorothy on his school football team. He doesn’t mind so much as he fancies her, but so do the other boys on the team.
Although Scottish coming-of-age romantic football comedies remain a very small category, we would argue that Gregory’s Girl is the best of the lot. The film also ranked at number 30 in the BFI’s top 100 British films of the 20th century.
The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)
If you like your football with a little bit of mystery then you’re going to enjoy this football thriller, in which a murder takes place at the original Arsenal Stadium on Gillespie Road in London. Arsenal and the fictitious team The Trojans are playing a friendly game, but when one of the players from the Trojans team drops dead, and it’s revealed it was poison, the real game begins: Leslie Banks as Inspector Anthony Slade begins to track down the killer.
The film involved some real-life Arsenal players and staff, and even includes the voice of Arsenal’s second-longest serving manager ever, George Allison.
When Saturday Comes (1996)
Sean Bean playing a heavy-drinking brewery worker who meets the lovely Annie (Emily Lloyd), gets scouted and becomes a football player for his beloved Sheffield United – what’s not to love? The film also has a great soundtrack which includes newly composed pieces from Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley and Sheffield band Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott.
Fever Pitch (1997)
Colin Firth and Ruth Gemmell (Bridgerton’s Lady Violet Bridgerton) star in this football romance loosely based on the best-selling memoir of Nick Hornby (who also wrote High Fidelity and About a Boy). The story follows the burgeoning romance between Firth’s character Paul Ashworth, a teacher, and Gemmell’s character Sarah Hughes, who joins the school. But football comes between them, as Paul is utterly obsessed with Arsenal.
Also starring Mark Strong, Neil Pearson (Bridget Jones), Lorraine Ashbourne (Bridgerton’s Mrs Varley) and real-life football commentator and broadcaster Mike Ingham.
Looking for Eric (2009)
This film from director Ken Loach, who also made I, Daniel Blake, is about Eric Bishop, a postman (who is played by The Fall’s former bass guitarist Steve Evets) whose life has taken a turn for the worse: His wife has left him, his kids don’t think much of him, he ends up in the hospital and he even contemplates suicide. But after smoking marijuana he has a vision of his hero, the Manchester United footballer Eric Cantona (who is, brilliantly, played by Cantona himself), and it sparks Bishop to sort out his life.
Shaolin Soccer (2001)
This Stephen Chow-directed film could be best described as a football and martial arts crossover film – a genre which in itself piques the interest. Shaolin Soccer tells the story of Sing, a master of Shaolin Kung Fu, who meets legendary Hong Kong football player, “Golden Leg” Fung, who then agrees to coach Sing in football. Sing wants to promote the spiritual and practical benefits of his beloved Kung Fu and believes that he may be able to do this through the popular game.
Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert said: “It is piffle, yes, but superior piffle.”
Escape to Victory (1981)
Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow (The Exorcist) and football great Pelé all star in this unique film about a group of allied prisoners in 1942 who play a football match against the German national team. Caine is their coach, Captain John Colby, and under his leadership, the team do better than expected.
The trailer goes, “The Nazis thought they were sitting on top of the world, never suspecting that they could be toppled in one conflict: the most unusual battle of the war” – a pretty ballsy set-up, to say the least.
The Miracle of Bern (2003)
Watching Germany win football matches is something that we Brits have experienced many times but rarely enjoyed. However, this film from German director Sönke Wortmann is perhaps different. The award-winning film tells the story of how the unfancied West Germany team won the 1954 World Cup final against tournament favourites Hungary.