When many people think of films about ‘The Beautiful Game’, a few, (mainly mediocre) movies tend to spring to mind, usually headed by John Huston’s 1981 folie de grandeur Escape to Victory.
As you may recall, the film cast Sly Stallone, a noticeably chubby Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow and real-life football legends Pelé, Osvaldo ‘Ozzy’ Ardiles and Bobby Moore in a ‘soccer’ themed homage to The Great Escape (1963).
But there are a surprising variety of other motion pictures about the sport and some are well worth checking out.
Of course, there are some real stinkers as well, most recently the Sky Cinema Original Final Score (2018), a lame attempt to repurpose Die Hard in the environs of West Ham’s London Stadium.The previous year George Best’s son Calum starred in the risible footie thriller Dangerous Game, rated by some as the ‘worst football film of all time’.
And don't forget 2014’s crummy United Passions, where Tim Roth starred as Sepp Blatter in a FIFA-funded whitewash about the founding of the organisation. Roth at first thought the movie was going to be a searing exposé of institutional corruption in association football’s governing body – until he read the script. According to the actor, the fee was enough to ‘put my kids through college’, which unsurprisingly convinced him to sign on for the role.
Footballers have occasionally succeeded in crossing over into the film world; witness the careers of Eric Cantona and Vinnie Jones. Ally McCoist was generally thought to have held his own when acting with Robert Duvall and Michael Keaton in A Shot at Glory back in 2000. Best to draw a discreet veil over David Beckham’s thespian career, despite director pal Guy Ritchie’s best efforts… and so, to the movies:
The Damned United (2009) – BBC iPlayer, Amazon Rent/Buy
Brian Clough’s (Michael Sheen) disastrous short-lived (44 days in all) stint as Leeds Utd manager and intense rivalry with former Leeds boss Don Revie (Colm Meaney) is the subject for The Damned United.
Sheen excels as Clough, who (to put it mildly) was a difficult chap to warm to, although he certainly had the gift of the gab and a unique sense of humour.
Timothy Spall plays Clough’s invaluable assistant coach Peter Taylor, who only returned to the managers side after a prolonged session of grovelling from Cloughie, which I assume the put-upon Taylor must have deeply enjoyed.
Looking for Eric (2009) – Icon Films, Rent/Buy
Eric’s sage words inspire the postie to turn his life around. Cantona has evolved into a decent (if limited) actor, most recently starring in the French mini-series Inhuman Resources (currently on Netflix), which is definitely worth a look.
Personally, I’d like to see Eric team up with Vinnie Jones in a wise-cracking Shane Black style action comedy. Perhaps a remake of Tango & Cash. Tequila Sunrise anyone?
Green Street (2005) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy
Along with Nick Love’s The Football Factory the previous year, Green Street is the gold standard of the 2000s ‘Hoolie’ sub-genre and is an enjoyable enough watch if you don’t think too hard. The film proved popular enough to be followed by two direct-to-video sequels.
Charlie Hunnam co-stars as the Green Street Elite (GSE) leader Pete, a role that took him on the path to action movie semi-stardom.
Bend it Like Beckham (2002) – STRAZPLAY, Amazon Rent/Buy
Gurinder Chadha’s romantic culture-clash comedy anticipated the growing popularity of women’s football and showcased the up-and-coming talent of Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley.
Bend it Like Beckham is the highest grossing association football movie to date, netting (sic) £77m on a £3.7m budget). David Beckham appears briefly at the end of the film; thankfully, he has no dialogue. If only that had been the case in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017).
Fever Pitch (1997) – BritBox, Amazon Rent/Buy
The rom-com follows Arsenal's First Division championship-winning season in 1988–89, culminating famously in Michael Thomas’ last-minute goal. In 2005 the Fever Pitch was remade by the Farrelly brothers, relocating the action to the Boston Red Sox's 2004 World Series.
Both Hornby’s High Fidelity (2000) and About a Boy (2002) were unsuccessfully transferred to the small screen as TV series.
The Fix (1997) – available in four parts free to view on YouTube
An early example of Steve Coogan’s obsession with the red top press, The Fix covers the events of the match fixing scandal of 1964, when a group of football players were imprisoned and banned for their part in throwing matches.
Paul Greengrass (Bourne) directs, this time without the nausea-inducing lensing pyrotechnics that were later to become his signature style.
Coogan plays Mike Gabbert, the Sunday People investigative journalist who uncovered the scandal, with Jason Isaacs as Everton left half Tony Kay, the best known of the players to be jailed/barred from the game.
When Saturday Comes (1996) – full movie available free to watch on YouTube
This cheerfully old-fashioned (profanities excepted) rom com was a case of wish fulfilment for star Sean Bean. The then 37-year-old actor stars as boozy factory worker Jimmy Muir, whose talents as a player are finally recognised with his highly improbable selection to play for Sheffield United.
Bean famously sports a ‘100% Blade’ tattoo, attesting to his real-life love of the team. Emily Lloyd has a largely thankless role as girlfriend Annie, with Bean’s Sharpe nemesis (Obadiah Hakeswill) Pete Postlethwaite as football scout Ken Jackson.
There were apparently plans for a sequel, but as Mr Bean is now 62 years old, that seems improbable, unless he pulls a Creed and plays the coach.
The Firm (1988)
Forget Nick Love’s pointless remake, Alan Clarke’s (Scum/Made in Britain) Screen Two film The Firm is the real deal.
Gary Oldman shines as Clive ‘Bex’ Bissel, a respectable estate agent during the working week and megalomaniacal leader of the ICC (Inter City Crew) in his leisure time. To some extent Bex, with his dream of an all-England ‘Firm’ to confront the Continentals is similar to gang leader Cyrus in Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors (1979). Bex also suffers the same fate, when he is gunned down by rival hooligan boss ‘The Yeti’ (Phil Davis).
Oldman obviously didn’t take to heart the old adage about bringing a gun to a knife fight, as Davis’ bad form in packing heat causes him to exclaim 'Oh, come on!' just before he’s shot.
Kes (1969) – Amazon Rent/Buy
I remember watching Kes at school, (presumably shown to the class so our teacher could slope off to the pub) and retain a soft spot for this touching and sad tale of a bullied working-class Yorkshire lad Billy and his pet kestrel.
If you have seen the movie, you will no doubt remember the iconic school football match, with go-to-Yorkshireman Brian Glover as referee Mr Sugden, wincingly squeezed into a pair of ‘nothing left to the imagination’ hot pants.
The Italian Job (1969) – Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy
Fair enough, you don’t actually see any football in The Italian Job, but the film hinges on an England/Italy international in Turin which Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) uses to provide cover for his bullion heist. Indeed, urbane crime boss Bridger (Noël Coward, particularly good) banks on England fans actively helping Croker’s crew if necessary.
Always an enjoyable watch, Troy Kennedy Martin’s script boasts a wealth of memorable lines (‘Something quite obscene. With Annette’ etc) although the very funny scene where Croker collects his Aston Martin from garage manager John Clive (Robert's Robots) was entirely improvised.
The Italian Job was remade in 2003; although not a bad movie, it bore little resemblance to the original beyond using a few character names from the 1969 picture.