The Best Football Films: Cinema Paradiso's First XI

With the World Cup underway, die-hard fans are going to need something to plug the gaps between the live games and the highlights programmes. And there's no better way to fill the downtime than watching some of the finest football films ever made. 

The beautiful game has been fascinating film-makers since the first flickers hit the screen in the 1890s. Based in Blackburn, James Kenyon and Sagar Mitchell found themselves in football's heartland and some of the earliest footie footage can be found on the BFI's Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Sports compilation. So, if you missed the 1901 clash between Newcastle United and Liverpool or the 1903 encounter involving Bradford City and Gainsborough Trinity, now's your chance to catch up. 

Cinema has sometimes struggled to recreate those moments of sublime skill and nailbiting drama that make football so addictive. So, documentary makers have something of an advantage, as they can string together iconic clips to tell their stories with an irresistible mix of insight and nostalgia. As Cinema Paradiso's First XI is restricted to fiction and dramatic reconstructions, we shall have to content ourself with flagging up a clutch of unmissable actualities. And where better to start than with four films focusing on classic World Cup exploits?

One nation seemingly starts each Mundial as favourites and Tocha Alves attempts to explain why in Ginga: The Soul of Brasilian Football (2005), which seeks to unlock the secrets of the Seleção's unparalleled success. Everyone knows that Diego Maradona got a little celestial help in guiding Argentina to victory in 1986 and Emir Kusturica considers his genius and demons in Maradona By Kusturica (2008). Four years later, England bounced back from 'the Hand of God' incident to reach the semi-finals of Italia 90 and James Erskine recalls the epic journey in One Night in Turin (2010). But, before anyone starts wallowing in 52 years of hurt, spare a thought for American Samoa, whose bid to qualify for the 2014 tournament - with the world's first transgender player, Jaiyah Saelua, in their ranks - is charted with touching charm in Mike Brett and Steve Jamison's Next Goal Wins (2014). 

Infamously, Zinedine Zidane was sent off during the 2006 World Cup final and Douglas Gordon reveals that history was merely repeating itself in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), which follows Zizou around the pitch during a 2005 Real Madrid encounter with Villareal. Those seeking to relive the glory days closer to home, however, might want to check out Benjamin Turner's profile of the Fergie Fledglings, The Class of '92 (2013), Gabriel Clarke's self-explanatory Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager (2018) and two tributes to inspirational Liverpool bosses, Mike Todd's Shankly: Nature's Fire and Stewart Sugg's Kenny, which finds a curious companion piece in Dave Stewart's 89 (all 2017), which recalls the climax of a season marred by the Hillsborough Disaster. 

Some poignant and probing films have been made about the events of 15 April 1989. But the names on our team sheet have been chosen solely to celebrate what's good about the world's favourite sport.

  • Escape to Victory (1981)

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    1h 52min

    By rights, this cornball underdog drama shouldn't work. But it triumphs thanks to John Huston's no-nonsense direction and the football sequences featuring several iconic players and one or two Ipswich Town journeymen making the most of their moment in the spotlight. Set during the Second World War, the story centres on an escape bid planned by a team of Allied POWs after they discover the game they have agreed to play in Paris against a crack German XI has been hijacked by the Nazis as a propaganda stunt. It's fascinating watching actors like Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone striving to hold their own against legends like Pelé, Bobby Moore and Osvaldo Ardiles. But don't overlook the game performances of Max von Sydow and Anton Diffring as ideologically conflicting Germans. 

  • The Miracle of Bern (2003) Das Wunder von Bern

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    1h 57min

    Drawing on the 'heimat' tradition of patriotic melodrama, Sönke Wortmann recalls the moment when West Germany emerged from the dark days of dictatorship and defeat in this engrossing saga set against the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. Switching between the Ruhr mining town of Essen, the Bavarian capital Munich and the Swiss city of Bern, Wortmann deftly interweaves subplots involving a demoralised ex-POW and his football-mad son, a reluctant sports journalist and Germany's best, but most frustratingly mercurial footballer, Helmut Rahn. The comparison between the nation's struggle to recover its economic strength and the team's bid to bounce back in the final against a Hungarian side that had hammered them 8-3 earlier in the tournament may not always be subtle. But it still makes for rousing viewing.

  • Offside (2006)

    1h 25min

    In Iran, female fans are forbidden from mingling with men at football matches. However, many disguise themselves in an effort to bypass the guards and director Jafar Panahi decided to make this biting satire after his own daughter was denied admission to a game. Filming at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran during a 2006 World Cup qualifier between Iran and Bahrain, Panahi largely improvised the story of six young women who are detained in a holding pen by some unmotivated soldiers. Exploring patriotism, town-and-country rivalry, Islamic attitudes to gender and the unifying power of sport, this endlessly amusing, but boldly outspoken picture shares its theme with Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Mustang (2015), in which Turkish teenager Günes Sensoy is prevented from supporting her team. Trabzonspor.

  • The Damned United (2009)

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    1h 34min

    Brian Clough is often cited as the best manager that England never had. But hints abound as to why this plain-speaking maverick was overlooked by the FA in Tom Hooper and screenwriter Peter Morgan's riveting adaption of David Pearce's bestselling account of Clough's ill-fated 44-day tenure at Leeds United. During his title-winning stint at Derby County, Clough (Michael Sheen) had forged a seething rivalry with Leeds boss, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), who took gloating pleasure in seeing his former charges rebel against Clough when he succeeded him at Elland Road in 1974. Offering shrewd insights into Clough's relationship with assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), this brilliantly acted picture has a thrilling companion in Jonny Owen's I Believe in Miracles (2015), which chronicles Cloughie's subsequent adventures at Nottingham Forest.

    Tom Hooper
    Colm Meaney, Henry Goodman, David Roper
    Drama, Sports & Sport Films, Comedy, Collections
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

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    1h 48min

    In the 1998 Father Ted episode, 'Escape From Victory', housekeeper Mrs Doyle reads a book entitled, 'Understanding Football for Women', and one suspects that all future editions will have contained a chapter on Gurinder Chadha's girl power classic. Tackling issues like culture clashes and gender stereotypes, the story centres on Punjabi Sikh Jesminder Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), who defies her strict parents to play alongside Juliette Paxton (Keira Knightley) in the Hounslow Harriers team coached by dishy Irishman, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Buoyed by the positivity of the message and the authenticity of the sporting sequences, a generation of young women was inspired to take up the game by this deceptively deep drama. which cost a mere £3.5 million to make and racked up $76.5 million worldwide.

  • There's Only One Jimmy Grimble (2000)

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    1h 41min

    Those old enough to remember the football comic, Scorcher, will get flashbacks to the 'Billy's Boots' strip while watching John Hay's feature debut. As in the case of Billy Dane, 15 year-old Jimmy Grimble (Lewis McKenzie) discovers untapped ability whenever he wears a pair of battered boots that had once belonged to unheralded Manchester City player, Robbie Brewer. Featuring a superb supporting cast that includes Gina McKee as Jimmy's mother, Ray Winstone as the removal man who takes him to matches, Jane Lapotaire as the boot donor, and Robert Carlyle as the coach of the school team, this cult gem is particularly relishable as Jimmy's foes, 'Gorgeous' Gordon Burley (Bobby Power) and Psycho (Ciaran Griffiths), are respectively modelled on the Man Utd duo, David Beckham and Roy Keane.

  • Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001)

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    1h 26min

    Let's hope Gareth Southgate has been watching Steve Barron's hilarious mockumentary while making his preparations for Russia, as it's a textbook study in how to become a World Cup nearly man. Clearly inspired by Ken McGill's squirm-inducing profile of Graham Taylor in the 1994 documentary, An Impossible Job, the action follows Mike Bassett (Ricky Tomlinson), as he steps up from taking Norwich City to the Mr Clutch Cup to leading England to Brazil. Mercilessly mocking the FA hierarchy and the tabloid press, John R. Smith and Rob Sprackling's screenplay is studded with recognisable caricatures on both the playing and coaching staffs, while Tomlinson excels as the manager subsisting on antidepressants and flaming sambucas, who unforgettably lets rip at his under-performing charges in the bleep-strewn half-time team talk against Mexico.

    Steve Barron
    Ricky Tomlinson, Amanda Redman, Bradley Walsh
    Comedy, Collections
  • Gregory's Girl (1981)

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    1h 27min

    Inspired by Jack Kerouac's 1959 novel, Maggie Cassidy, and produced for under £200,000, Bill Forsyth's paean to Scottish goalkeepers has lost none of its charm over the last 37 years. Although football plays a pivotal role in proceedings, this deadpan rite of passage is most memorable for its shrewd observation of the agonies and ecstasies of school life. The ganglingly gormless Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) couldn't care less that he's been dumped between the posts, as he gets to watch new star striker Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) parade her silky skills on the all-weather pitch at the now-demolished Abronhill High School in Cumbernauld. Hepburn prepared for the part by training with Partick Thistle and, in the process, did her bit to promote women's football.

    Bill Forsyth
    John Gordon-Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Jake D'Arcy
    Comedy, Collections, Classics, Romance
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Africa United (2010)

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    1h 24min

    In 1977, Pelé predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the end of the 20th century. The wait goes on, but the continent has produced one of the most affecting football films. Dismissed by cynics as a well-meaning, but sentimental wallow, Debs Gardner-Paterson's road movie follows five children to the 2010 tournament in South Africa. Accompanying his best friend to an audition for the opening ceremony, a Rwandan teenager and his sister befriend a Congolese child soldier and a Burundian sex slave during their 3000-mile journey to Johannesburg. Despite alerting juvenile audiences to the poverty, disease, exploitation and conflict confronting their counterparts in some of the planet's most deprived and dangerous places, this stirring odyssey also celebrates the ingenuity, tenacity and hope that sustains them.

  • Game of Their Lives (2005)

    1h 37min

    Adapted from an acclaimed book by Geoffrey Douglas, this is a recreation of one of the most remarkable matches in the World Cup's 88-year history. Nobody gave the United States a chance when they lined up against mighty England at Belo Horizonte during the 1950 group stages. However, the underdogs had a surprising resilience that was rooted in the unshakeable bonds between players from St Louis, Missouri and Fall River, Massachusetts. Produced by Philip Anschutz, who was one of the founders of Major League Soccer, this was designed to prompt viewers into taking a patriotic pride in what remains Stateside a minority sport. Yet, despite taking a number of factual liberties, this is worth watching for the bullish performance of Gerard Butler as goalkeeping hero, Frank Borghi.

  • Shaolin Soccer (2001) Siu lam juk kau

    1h 25min

    Although it broke box-office records in Hong Kong, Stephen Chow's high-kicking romp wouldn't stand much scrutiny under VAR. Basing his script on the Captain Tsubasa manga series, Chow stars as Sing, a street cleaner who recruits monks from his former Shaolin monastery to challenge Hung (Patrick Tse Yin), the thug who once broke the leg of his most gifted opponent, Golden Foot Fung (Ng Man Tat), and is now the boss of the notorious Team Evil, whose invincibility is fuelled by a wonder drug. Clearly neither coach believes in keeping the ball on the ground. But the mid-air balletics are undeniably exhilarating and there's also a touch of romance in the air, as acne-riddled street vendor Mui (Zhao Wei) catches Chow's eye when she becomes the substitute goalkeeper.

Subs Bench

Football's a squad game these days, so it's always wise to have some decent replacements on the bench.

Kes (1969)

The undoubted highlight of Ken Loach's enduring adaptation of Barry Hines's rite of passage is the games lesson in which teacher Brian Glover imagines he's Bobby Charlton.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

Disney blended live-action and animation for the Royal Cup match between the jungle animals representing the Dirty Yellows and the True Blues in this flying visit to the Isle of Naboombu.

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972)

Sporting action's at a premium in Wim Wenders's provocative take on Peter Handke's novel. But it does provide insights that might prove valuable in the event of a penalty shootout.  

Fever Pitch (1997)

Teacher Colin Firth finds himself torn between a romance with a new colleague and Arsenal's stuttering progress towards the league title in this engaging adaptation of Nick Hornby's bestseller. 

Purely Belter (2000)

A couple of Geordie lads resort to stealing Alan Shearer's car in their increasingly desperate bid to raise money for a pair of Newcastle United season tickets. 

Goal! (2005)

Kuno Becker scored a hat-trick, as he played Mexican footballer Santiago Muñez in both this rags-to-riches saga and its sequels, Goal 2: Living the Dream (2007) and Goal 3: Taking on the World (2009).

One Night in Istanbul (2014)

Getting to the match proves more difficult than fighting back from 0-3 down in this riotous comedy set against Liverpool's 2005 Champions League triumph over AC Milan.

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