From Bend It Like Beckham to Diego Maradona: the best films about football

As the belated Euros finally kick off, take a whistlestop tour through the finest cinematic depictions of the beautiful game

Bend It Like Beckham

Gurinder Chadha’s feelgood comedy was really the first film to get the hang of how to show football action on screen with loose-limbed energy and fun. Keira Knightley made her breakthrough as the up-and-coming footballing talent Jules. She befriends Jess, played by Parminder Nagra, whose dad is far from happy about her playing football.


Jafar Panahi’s comedy is about female football fans desperate to defy Iran’s no-women rule and sneak in to the Iran v Bahrain qualifier for the 2006 World Cup – disguised as men. They find themselves grabbed by the police and herded into a special holding pen, being watched over by a miserable cop who is to suffer a karmic punishment for his sexism.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

Artists and film-makers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno had the nifty idea of filming Real Madrid v Villarreal in 2005 and keeping the camera close up on Zinédine Zidane for the entirety of the match. In real time, we watch the hypnotic spectacle of Zidane’s great Easter Island statue face filling the screen.

War-zonal marking ... Bobby Moore, Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone in Escape to Victory.
War-zonal marking ... Bobby Moore, Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone in Escape to Victory. Photograph: Lorimar Film Entertainment/Allstar

Escape to Victory

John Huston’s all-movie-star, all-football-star drama about a second world war PoW camp in which allied soldiers form a team to play an “exhibition match” against the Germans. Michael Caine plays the coach, with Sylvester Stallone as the US soldier who serves as his trainer. Pele, Bobby Moore and Osvaldo Ardiles also star.

Looking for Eric

Some might say that Ken Loach’s greatest football film is Kes, with Brian Glover as the bumptious PE teacher. But this film had a role for one of the finest examples of a professional player going on to a movie career: the superlative Eric Cantona, playing himself in a vision to a depressed Manchester United supporter.

Leeds much to be desired ... Michael Sheen as Brian Clough in The Damned United.
Leeds much to be desired ... Michael Sheen as Brian Clough in The Damned United. Photograph: Sony/Everett/Rex

The Damned United

Tom Hooper’s film version of David Peace’s novel about Brian Clough and his ill-fated stint managing Leeds United in 1974, with Michael Sheen giving us a classic turn as the great man. Did Clough want to destroy “Dirty Leeds” or did he want to destroy himself, ashamed of having taken Leeds’ shilling?

Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football

The Brazilian fantasist and conman Carlos “Kaiser” Raposo was given a trial in the 1980s by the Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto and used that one brush with greatness to get briefly signed for a string of Brazilian clubs. But he never actually played football for anyone, becoming a mascot kept around for his party-animal attitude.

Handyman ... Diego Maradona.
Handyman ... Diego Maradona. Photograph: Lifestyle Pictures/Alamy

Diego Maradona

Asif Kapadia’s documentary about footballing great Diego Maradona tells his gripping story purely through TV footage, masterfully chosen and shaped. Maradona causes mass hysteria in Buenos Aires and Naples: goals, nightclubs, goals, gangsters, girlfriends, pregnancies, pregnancy denials, cocaine, weight gain, despair … it’s like a 130-minute Match of the Day title sequence by Sophocles.

Mike Bassett: England Manager

Steve Barron’s mockumentary is about the beleaguered but lovable national boss Mike Bassett (Ricky Tomlinson). Switching between gloomy stoicism and impotent rage, Bassett clearly has something of Graham Taylor while also capable of unleashing a blistering half-time team talk with the passion of Alex Ferguson.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Thorold Dickinson is a British director admired by Scorsese – and here is his football mystery thriller, one of the first to feature football, an Agatha-Christie-ish caper set in Arsenal’s old Highbury ground and featuring real players. Arsenal are playing the fictitious amateur side the Trojans, one of whom drops dead and everyone’s a suspect.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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