Sports films are generally bad. Replicating the intensity of the real-life match or event is nigh impossible, creating emotional connections with characters can be tedious, and trying to make sense of those moments off the field/court/cage is almost always futile.
Soccer films are not exempt from this pattern. Many are fine works that stand among their non-sport-related peers, but even some of the worst examples have a habit of nestling in one’s memory, attaching themselves like a barnacle of nostalgia.
What better time than during a period of self-isolation to dive deep in search of those pearls of movie magic, or better yet, find them for the first time altogether?
10. Purely Belter
If the plot of Purely Belter were retrofitted to fit a 2020 audience, it would likely see protagonists Gerry and Sewell raise the necessary £1,000 for two Newcastle United season tickets only to find their seats at St. James’ Park had been melted down by the owner to serve as a PVC fondue.
At the time of its release in 2000, however, a story about two boys from Gateshead with little much else other than a love of the Magpies seemed only too plausible.
Comprising very little in terms of on-field script, Purely Belter thrives on a storyline based around two boys from broken backgrounds whom it’s impossible not to rally behind.
Complete with cameo from the former Newcastle and England striker, the script also proudly boasts the line: “It’s Alan Shearer’s f***y magnet!”
Where to Stream Purely Belter: Watch free on Youtube
9. Shaolin Soccer
The closest thing this writer has seen to date of Galactik Football playing out in ‘real’ life, Shaolin Soccer was the brilliant offspring of a marriage between martial arts and The Beautiful Game.
Stephen Chow’s 2001 creation may not be allowed past the testing phase if a similar idea were put forth today, but all the more reason to treasure such a unique work.
Released almost one year to the day after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made its debut in Hong Kong, Shaolin Soccer was an early (and successful) experiment in the wonders of CGI.
Where to Stream Shaolin Soccer: Rent on Youtube
8. She’s The Man
Sat proudly somewhere near the summit of the “So Bad It’s Good” pile of comedy sports films, She’s The Man is a predictable tale of love and lust, but then so are most media based on works of Shakespeare.
Taking Twelfth Night into the 21st century, the film sees Amanda Bynes attempt to fumble her way into her brother’s soccer team while masquerading as him. She’s talented enough to make the cut, but if only she could get this darn jock strap to stay put, eh?
The Vinnie Jones lines are brief, the comedy is slapstick, and it’s possible to watch at least once every few years with a fresh consideration of: “Yes, it’s been long enough.”
Plus, Channing Tatum.
Where to Stream She's The Man: Rent on Amazon
7. Bend It Like Beckham
Films with a clear message tend to stay with us more as children, and Bend It Like Beckham was an early lesson in multiculturalism, equality and acceptance for many who saw it in cinemas. It also paid homage to the eponymous David Beckham, which was always sure to attract punters.
Parminder Nagra broke through in the role of Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, a football fanatic from a strict Indian Sikh family whose love of the sport took priority over her religion.
Responsible for reminding a generation of boys (and men) the other gender was just as well equipped to play The Beautiful Game, featuring a brief appearance from Golden Balls himself.
Where to Stream Bend It Like Beckham: Starz
6. Looking For Eric
What is it about soccer films that makes directors want to pioneer such wonderfully insane ideas?
Manchester United icon Eric Cantona stars and serves as executive producer in Looking For Eric, which delves into the endless lengths of football fandom and the pitfalls that can lie therein.
British director Ken Loach makes you want to reach out to help protagonist Eric Bishop, whose love for United has obstructed near enough every other facet of his life and turned most relationships to rubble.
In steps the spectral hallucinations of Cantona, who plays the role of spirit guide almost too well.
Where to Stream Looking For Eric: Watch free on Youtube
3. Goal! Trilogy
Not since Footballers’ Wives has it been so difficult to resist the urge of becoming so utterly captivated by the goings on of completely fictional soccer players.
Without giving two much away, the Goal! trilogy (for the most part) focuses on the rags-to-riches story of Santiago Munez, who essentially lives out the life we’ve all dreamed about at some point or another.
There’s love, loss and a lot of questionable acting in between, but this writer be damned if these three films don’t depict the life of a professional player in all its glory with complete accuracy.
Where to Stream Goal!: Rent on Amazon Prime
5. Mean Machine
It was difficult to swing a cat in Hollywood during the early 2000s without hitting a Vinnie Jones masterpiece before long, and Mean Machine will sparkle as the best of the bunch for many.
A British reimagining of 1974’s The Longest Yard, Mean Machine has everything needed to make for a solid watch: a rebel hero worth rooting for, a gritty storyline and enough acting talent across the bench to make up for Jones’ clear lacking in that department.
Jason Statham, Omid Djalili, Vas Blackwood and the late David Kelly are among those who make this an unforgettable entry in soccer film fame.
Where to Stream Mean Machine: Rent on Amazon Prime
3. The Damned United
Probably the best soccer film made to date in terms of storytelling, it’s a wonder how The Damned United failed to recoup even half of its $10 million budget at the box office considering the acclaim that it’s long received.
Based on the David Peace book of the same name, it does a splendid job in telling the tale of Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44 days in charge of Leeds United in 1974. The old adage tells us to never let the truth get in the way of a good story, but The Damned United leaves enough real account for it to strike deep without getting lost in the darker themes that surrounded Clough’s tenure.
The performance of Welsh actor Michael Sheen as Clough in particular gives steel to a cast that also includes Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney as assistant Peter Taylor and rival Don Revie, respectively.
Where to Stream The Damned United: Rent on Amazon Prime
2. There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble
Loosely based around a comic strip released in the early 1960s (see: Billy’s Boots), There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble is the childhood dream we all hoped would come true in our youth.
Whatever the sport, discovering a magical item(s) of clothing that would transform us into the star athlete we hoped to become was the modern-day Jack and the Giant Beanstalk—but those magic beans aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.
Jimmy’s dreams to play for Manchester City are realised thanks to a pair of ‘magic boots’, but father figure and coach, Robert Carlyle, makes him wonder if he needs them at all.
It’s a shame lead actor Lewis McKenzie didn’t remain in acting, but the film benefits greatly from the chops provided by Carlyle, Ray Winstone and Gina McKee.
Where to Stream There's Only One Jimmy Grimble: Rent on iTunes
1. Mike Bassett: England Manager
Amid the assortment of serious and satirical, Mike Bassett: England Manager has attained cult status in British circles and casts a wonderfully aware light on the coaching aspect of the sport.
Ricky Tomlinson embraced his role as the titular character several years after The Royle Family emerged on British television, and this was to be the gem in his cinema career.
England’s poor record in major tournaments is exploited for major comedic gain, also touching on themes of character assassination in the tabloids, all while showing about three minutes of actual football being played.
Tomlinson’s changing-room dress-downs are enough to reel in a casual viewer, but his character is a car crash in transit from start to finish, one it’s impossible to take your eyes off.
The film that spawned the phrase: “England will be playing four-four-f*****g-two!” Need we say more?
Where to Stream Mike Bassett: England Manager: Watch free on Tubi
Editor's Bonus: Green Street Hooligans
How could you leave out one of the most iconic films for fans from across the pond? Fresh off his performance as Frodo in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Elijah Wood ditches the British accent for his true American voice. He plays Matt Buckner, an aspiring journalist kicked out of Harvard after taking the fall for a cocaine-addicted and well-connected roommate, just weeks before graduation.
Wood heads to London to stay with his sister, an expat married to a former West Ham United firm legend. The firm is now led by Pete, who takes an out-of-his-depth Matt under his wing.
The film exposes the heady rivalry between West Ham United and Millwall, one that rises to a crescendo with a bloody, violent battle at the end. Sure, the acting is a bit pushy at times, but from an American perspective, you feel as if you're acclimating to life in London along with Matt Buckner, struggling to fit in and fight for your street cred.
Okay, maybe that's more than a bit unrealistic, but one thing's guaranteed: By the end you'll be belting I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles right alongside Elijah Wood.
Where to Stream Green Street Hooligans: Watch free on Youtube