TRCH The Merry Widow

Eleven Greatest Football Films

14 June 18 words: Ashley Carter

As the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia, we've picked out a starting eleven of cracking football films to get you in the mood for England's inevitable early exit...

11. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

"...they don't play your game, they play the attacking game."

Director: Thorold Dickinson

Starring: Leslie Banks, Greta Gynt, Ian McLean

Adapted from the novel by Leonard Gribble, this classic murder mystery is set, as the title suggests, at Arsenal FC's Highbury Stadium.  When a player drops dead during a friendly match between the Gunners and fictional amateur side The Trojans, Detective Inspector Slade (Banks) quickly determines the death was due to poisoning, and sets out on a mission to find the culprit.  A product of the famous Ealing Studios, the film also provided support roles for then Arsenal manager George Allison and trainer Tom Whittaker.  

Did you know?  A sequel, The Denham Studio Mystery, was mooted by Thorold Dickinson but never made.  It was planned that it would incorporate footage shot by Josef von Sternbergfor his aborted film I, Claudius (1937).

10. There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble (2000)

“I'm on the bloody team. You don't have to be Einstein to work that one out. Well, sub at least. And that's worth getting a faceful of gob any day.”

Director: John Hay

Starring: Lewis McKenzie, Robert Carlyle, Gina McKee

Bullied for supporting the then unpopular Manchester City, Jimmy Grimble always dreams of playing for his school team. When an old woman gives him a pair of boots that once belonged to a City legend, his fortunes start to change.  Believing the boots are somehow magic, Jimmy quickly becomes a star player for his school.  Whilst the plot might sound goofy, There's Only One Jimmy Grimbleis an underrated classic that carries an important central message about bullying and peer pressure, examines a time when City were still shite, has bullies that are clearly based on United players, makes the most of a great cast and has a banging sound track that includes The Charlatans, Fat Boy Slim, The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses. 

Did you know? Actor Lewis McKenzie wore fake ears for the role of Jimmy Grimble.

9. I Believe in Miracles (2015)

“We were all wondering who the next manager was going to be. Turns out it was Mr. Clough.”

Director: Jonny Owen

Starring: Brian Clough, Peter Taylor, Peter Shilton

Jonny Owen's documentary strikes the perfect balance of emotion and humour as he brilliantly portrays the unbelievable effect Brian Clough had on the fortunes of Nottingham Forest in the 1970s.  From taking over the club as a struggling Second Division team, Ol' Big Head somehow transformed the team into two-time European Cup winners in a crazily short amount of time.  Combining some incredible archive footage, contemporary interviews from some of the club's biggest legends and an uplifting score, Owen managed to make this Derby County fan excited for a film about Nottingham Forest.  Enough said.  

Did you know? The world premiere was held at the City Ground, Nottingham to an outdoor showing.

8. Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

“What family would want a daughter-in-law who can run around kicking football all day but can't make round chapatis?”

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Starring: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Made for a budget of just £6 million, Bend It Like Beckham pulled in a staggering £75 million worldwide following its release in 2002.  It's not difficult to see why, combining as it does the British sense of humour within the emerging world of women's football.  Whilst at its heart it's a coming of age story, the film also examines the cultural difficulties of a young Indian female struggling to find the familial support she needs to follow a career in professional football.  Making stars out of Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley, who went on to star in E.Rand a host of Hollywood films respectively, Bend It Like Beckhammanages to capture the innocent excitement of football in its purest form.  

Did you know? Bend It Like Beckham was the first Western film allowed to be shown in North Korea.

7. Les Bleus: Another History of France (2016)

“The last time that many people were on the Champs-Elysees was after World War II.”

Director: David Dietz, Sonia Dauger

Starring: Eric Cantona, Lillian Thuram, Robert Pires

Doubtlessly one of the finest sporting documentaries of recent years, Les Bleus... tracks the history of the French National team from 1996 to 2016, examining the French political and social landscape over two decades through the prism of football.  The World Cup winning team of 1998, which included Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram, were heralded as a paragon of multicultural inclusion, as the film poetically highlights the togetherness of a team that included white, black and Arab players.  Holding this up as a mirror to the increasingly divided French society, the film explores the impact of football to inspire social change, looking at examples of racial injustice, the rise of right-wing politics and terrorist attacks on French soil.  Whilst on the surface, Les Bleus... is a film about football, it soon exposes itself to be about much, much more.  

Did you know? Until Germany demolished them 7-1 in the semi-finals of the 2014 tournament, Brazil's 3-0 loss to France in the 1998 World Cup Final was their biggest ever defeat in the tournament.   

6. Escape to Victory (1981)

“It's in all the papers. They're calling it another German lie. London is saying that no British officer would ever be involved in such a game.”

Director: John Huston

Starring: Michael Caine, Pele, Bobby Moore

Easily one of the most insane mainstream films ever made, legendary director John Huston pulls together the talents of Rocky's Sylvester Stallone, Bergman leading man Max Von Sydow, Michael Caine, Pele, Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardilles.  Whilst the cast alone seems like the brainchild of a particularly heavy LSD session, the plot is fairly run of the mill.  A group of allied POWs prepare for a football game against the German national team to by played in Nazi-occupied Paris, as the French Resistance and British Intelligence Officers make plans for the teams escape.  Nothing about the cast, director or plot make much sense, and I still struggle to believe that this film actually exists.  But exist it does, and is every bit as insane as the IMDB page would have you believe.  

Did you know? Sylvester Stallone insisted that his character score the winning goal in the film, as he felt he was the project's biggest star.  The non-American crew was finally able to convince him of the absurdity of the goalkeeper scoring the winning goal, and the penalty shot was specifically written to placate his ego.

5. Next Goal Wins (2014)

“They needed nine goals today. You only gave them eight. That’s a step in the right direction.”

Director: Mike Brett, Steve Jamison

Starring: Thomas Rongen, Jaiyah Saelua, Nicky Salapu

The film that moved self-confessed football-hater Mark Kermode to tears, Next Goal Wins is an astounding documentary about a truly unique football team.  On the back of the largest defeat in the history of international football, a 31-0 rout to Australia, new coach Thomas Rongen is drafted in to try and lift the spirits of the American Samoa national team.  Finding a group of colourful players that are big on character but devoid of any skill, including a trans-gender goalkeeper, Rongen struggles to get to grips with both the cultural shock and enforcing his style of play on his new team.  Like all great sports films, this is less about winning and more about the struggle, and the camaraderie at the heart of a group of players that, although lacking in real ability, have an overwhelming desire to rebuild their sense of national pride.  

Did you know? As well as Australia's 31-0 win over American Samoa being the biggest defeat in international football history, Archie Thompson's 13 goals also broke the record for most goals scored by a player in an international match.

4. The Two Escobars (2010)

“At the moment of the own goal, I put my hands to my head and said, ‘our country is done for.’”

Director: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist

Starring: María Ester Escobar, Alexis García V., Jaime Gaviria Gómez

Meticulously researched and beautifully executed, The Two Escobarsfollows the parallel lives of two men who, despite not being related, both had an enormous impact on their country of Columbia.  Andrés Escobar was one of Colombia's beloved athletes, a talented and talismanic defender whose strong character made him a role model after he led his country to a place in the World Cup in 1994.  He came to know drug lord Pablo Escobar when the latter purchased the team Andrés played for, and bankrolled the recruiting drive that helped make them one of the world's best, laundering his drug money through the club at the same time.  After scoring an own-goal during a crucial match of that 1994 tournament, Andrés was brutally murdered in what was seen as a revenge attack from some of Pablo Escobar’s underlings.  A truly astonishing, haunting film that perfectly portrays the very best and worst of the beautiful game.  

Did you know? After Andrés Escobar's death, his family founded the Andrés Escobar Project to help disadvantaged children learn to play football.

3. Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001)

“Ladies and gentlemen. England will be playing Four-Four-Fucking Two.”

Director: Steve Barron

Starring: Ricky Tomlinson, Amanda Redman, Bradley Walsh

As funny now as it was then, Mike Bassett: England Manager perfectly mines the absurdity of English football, from the negative role of the media, the out-of-date meddling of the FA, the drinking culture amongst the players and the ridiculous expectations from a public that never seem to learn their lesson.  Ricky Tomlinson is never better as the hapless Bassett, a man whose managerial approach is old-fashioned and woefully ineffective, having only been given the England job due to no-one else wanting it.  As his team make it to the World Cup by the skin of their teeth, and with the entire world seemingly against him, Bassett and his equally hopeless coaching staff struggle to reclaim some small semblance of national pride.  Hilarious from start to finish, and featuring cameos from the likes of Pele and Ronaldo, Mike Bassett: England Manager sits right at the top of the list of football comedies.  

Did you know? In the film England beat Argentina 1-0 in the group stage of the World Cup finals. The England team did this for real a year later in the 2002 World Cup.

2. The Damned United (2009)

“Things are going to be a little different around here... without Don.”

Director: Tom Hooper

Starring: Michael Sheen, Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall

Brian Clough, the greatest football manager never to manage England is given the big-screen treatment for his infamously short spell in charge of Leeds United in 1974.  Lasting just 44 days, Clough came in guns blazing, determined to change everything that had made the team successful under his bitter rival Don Revie.  Michael Sheen, in a career made on portraying real-life characters, is never better as Clough, performing far more than just a simple impression.  Managing to capture the essence of the man that was part genius, part arrogance, part charisma and part endless determination, he is the shining star in a film that, whilst arguably not historically accurate, is endlessly entertaining.  

Did you know? The film has been criticized by the Clough family as they state it was not a true story of events.

1. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006)

"It’s a footballer and football, as you have never seen them before..."

Director: Douglas Gordon, Phillipe Parreno

Starring: Zinédine Zidane

Beguilingly simple in its concept, but painstaking and mercurial in its execution, Zidane: A 21st Century Portraitfollows the French maestro with 17 synchronised cameras during one Real Madrid La Liga game in April 2003.  Following his every move, the film creates a hypnotic, ethereal effect that at once shows the simplicity of the beautiful game, whilst somehow making it feel other-worldly.  Totally unique, wonderfully mesmeric and utterly brilliant, Zidane: A 21st Century is a stunning testament to one of the greatest players in the history of the game.  

Did you know? It took over two years to make the film.

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