Even though soccer is the world’s most popular sports, there’s a surprising lack of films about the beautiful game. In America, it seems that there are more movies about college football than the soccer variety. But we’ve combed the video stores, e-commerce sites and streaming destinations to pick out the best-of-the-best — everything from documentaries to dramas and even some comedies too.
Here are the top 20 greatest soccer films of all time:
1. The Two Escobars
The Two Escobars tells the story of two Colombians: One a football player, the other a drug baron. The player, Andres Escobar, led the Colombian national team to unprecedented heights on the soccer pitch, and helped make Colombia a dark horse at the 1994 World Cup. The drug baron, Pablo Escobar, led Colombia into a war on the streets as rival drug cartels fought a bloody battle for supremacy. This documentary tells the tale of two men whose lives crossed paths, and changed a country, national team and sport forever. The documentary is riveting, emotional and powerful. It’s a must-see.
2. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
This 2006 documentary follows one of the game’s greatest players, Zinedine Zidane, throughout the 90 minutes of a single match. Zidane was filmed during Real Madrid’s April 23, 2005 match against Villarreal using 17 synchronized cameras that followed his every movement made during the match (even his sending off). The film is set to a soundtrack by Scottish experimental-rock band Mogwai, who contributed a dark-brooding backdrop to the film.
3. Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos
The rise and fall of the North American Soccer League and The New York Cosmos go hand in hand. Once In a Lifetime tells the story of the original Cosmos beginning in the late-1960s until their untimely ending in 1985. An unbelievable story of greed, goals and girls. The Cosmos had world famous players Pele, Franz Beckenbaur, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia — at the peak of their careers (with the exception of Pele) — and were the original superstar team of world football. This documentary features interviews with many of the North American Soccer League’s former stars, with the exception of Pele. Also featured is plenty of match footage and narration by actor Matt Dillon.
4. Fever Pitch
Not to be confused with the US version about baseball, Fever Pitch is the true cinematic interpretation of Nick Hornby’s seminal novel. Hornby adapted his original work into a fictionalized movie about a man’s love of football and love for a woman. The movie focuses on Colin Firth’s character Paul Ashworth, a north London schoolteacher. Ashworth is a diehard Arsenal fan who falls for a fellow teacher. What follows is Ashworth’s attempts to stabilize his two love lives as they continually clash. Not nearly as good as the book, but the film is still worth watching.
5. The Damned United
Based on David Pearce’s 2007 novel of the same name, The Damned United follows eccentric football manager Brian Clough through his success at Derby County and his 44 days in charge of Leeds United. The film stars Michael Sheen as Clough, and Timothy Spall as his right hand man, Peter Taylor. Though the book and film are based on true people and events, it is Pearce’s fictionalization of those events that make this work so enthralling.
6. Escape to Victory (aka Victory)
Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Pele and Bobby Moore come together for this classic football movie from 1981. The film is an interpretation of a 1961 Hungarian film called “Two Halftimes in Hell.” That film was inspired by true events that took place in Ukraine during WWII. In Escape to Victory, however, the story centers around a group of Allied prisoners of war. The prisoners are challenged to a football match by the German officers who believe the match will be a brilliant propaganda move. Unknown to them is an escape plan being hatched by the prisoners to coincide with the match. Corny at times, and dated, it’s still a football classic.
There are few soccer documentaries that are as enlightening and inspirational as this one. Pelada is a documentary following Luke and Gwendolyn, two former college soccer stars who didn’t quite make it to the pros. Not ready for it to be over, they take off, chasing the game. From prisoners in Bolivia to moonshine brewers in Kenya, from freestylers in China to women who play in hijab in Iran, Pelada is the story of the people who play. It’s the type of documentary that will inspire you to pick up a ball immediately after the end credits finish rolling. It’s a joy to watch, and a must-see for any soccer fan.
8. Mike Bassett: England Manager
Ricky Tomlinson stars as Mike Bassett in this 2001 mockumentary about the perils of being England manager. The film takes shots at the England FA, the English press and English football players as an unwitting Bassett is instilled as England national team coach. Bassett is entrusted with guiding the Three Lions to the World Cup despite the continuing frustrations that seem to only come with being England’s top man.
9. The Miracle of Bern
This 2003 German film is a view into post-WWII Germany. It follows Richard, a father returning home from Siberia where he has been held in a POW camp, who must come to terms with a changing society he continually feels alienated in. The events of the film unfold during West Germany’s unlikely run to the World Cup Finals match in Bern, Switzerland in 1954. Since the movie’s release, it has become one of the top-selling movies in Germany.
10. Rise Of The Footsoldier
BAFTA awarding winning director Julian Gilbey introduces a film based on true events, and is the biography of Carlton Leach. Leach is a former member of West Ham’s Inter City Firm, and the film follows Leach through his days as a hooligan into the world of crime. This isn’t the typical football hooligan movie, and unlike The Firm or Green Street Hooligans, the stories from Rise of The Footsoldier are true.
11. Green Street Hooligans
This is a 2005 British-American film starring Elijah Wood. After being kicked out of university, Wood’s character Matt Buckner, flies to England to visit his sister Shannon and her husband Steve. Shortly after arriving, Matt is introduced to Steve’s younger brother Pete, a member of West Ham football firm Green Street Elite. Pete and his mates introduce Matt to their world of boozing, violence and football, something Matt quickly becomes addicted to. While the film glamorizes football hooliganism, it’s still worth watching.
12. Bend it Like Beckham
Keira Knightly (Juliet) and Parminder Nagra (Jess) star in this feel-good comedy about an English-born Indian girl’s desire to become a professional footballer. Jess has grown up in a conservative Sikh family, and hasn’t been allowed to play “boy’s” sports. Despite her constant pleading, and love for David Beckham, Jess’s parents are unrelenting. However, after she befriends Juliet, Jess joins a local football club and must keep her secret away from her family. It’s a charming story, and a perfect film for the family.
13. The Miracle Match
Based on the book by Geoffrey Douglas, this 2005 drama stars Gerard Butler with appearances by former US men’s national team player John Harkes and rock star Gavin Rossdale. The film tells the true story of the USA’s 1950 World Cup soccer team. A team that was hastily put together of players from St. Louis, Missouri and New York City. Many of the players came from ethnic neighborhoods, and played in recreational leagues. After mere days of training together the team plays the mighty English side at the World Cup, and registered the most historic win in US soccer history. Inspirational.
14. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery
This 1939 film is considered a classic and was the first movie to use football in its plot. The film tells the fictitious story of the Trojans, who travel to Arsenal stadium to play the Gunners. Unfortunately for the Trojans, one of their players falls over dead during the match. It’s now up to Detective Inspector Slade to solve the mystery. The film features wonderful shots of the historic Highbury, now gone but not forgotten.
15. The Football Factory
This 2004 British film stars Danny Dyer, and spawned the documentary TV show of the same name. The film follows Dyer’s character Tommy Johnson, a Chelsea supporter and hooligan, who is beginning to doubt his rough and tumble lifestyle. However, Chelsea is drawn against arch nemesis Millwall in the third round of the FA Cup. It’s a fight Tommy’s firm the “Headhunters” have been waiting years for. Events don’t go to plan along the way, and Tommy continues to questions himself and those around him. It’s a film that again glorifies football hooliganism, but if you’re interested in that scene, you’ll enjoy the film.
16. The Match
This 1999 romantic comedy takes place in the Scottish village of Inverdoune. The small village is also home to two pubs — Benny’s Bar and Le Bistro — that have been feuding for the past 99 years. Each year the pubs play a football match that is routinely won by Le Bistro. However, this year there is a new incentive for Benny’s. Long ago, the pubs’ original owners made a bet that will be settled based on the result of the 100th match. The bet: One pub will be closed forever. Cute, watchable and worth a shot.
17. Goal! The Dream Begins
Goal! The Dream Begins is the first installment of the Goal! trilogy, and was made with the cooperation of FIFA. This allowed the film to have numerous teams and players make appearances throughout the movie. Goal! tells the story of a Santiago Munez, a young Hispanic man, living in a poor area of Los Angeles. Santiago’s dream is to play professional football. However, the closest he can get to this dream is playing in the local leagues with other Hispanic workers. It’s one of these local league games that Santiago’s skills are seen by former Newcastle United player and scout Glen Foy. Glen wants to help Santiago fulfill his dream, but does Santiago have what it takes? It’s a film that is sticky sweet and too fictional for my liking, but still worth watching.
18. Africa United
Africa United is a 2010 film about three children’s adventure on the way to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. The story begins in Rwanda with childhood friends Dudu and Fabrice. Fabrice has been invited to audition for the World Cup’s opening ceremony in Kigali after he broke the local record for keepy-ups. The two are joined by Dudu’s sister Beatrice, and the group quickly set out for the Rwandan capital. However, they get on the wrong bus and find themselves in a long way from home. The three embark on a journey that will take them to some of the most dangerous places in their pursuit of football.
19. The World At Their Feet
Released in 2005, this documentary traces the USA’s women’s soccer program back to the 1980s. The film’s climax is the 1999 Women’s World Cup, with stories told by players, journalists and even American politicians. The documentary gives incite into the women’s soccer program, and will give many women’s soccer fans a view into one of the biggest American sports stories of the 1990s. This is a very moving documentary that will have you crying your eyes out at the sheer challenges the women face and overcome. Highly recommended.
20. The Firm
Gary Oldman stars in this 1988 film about football hooliganism. This is the movie that helped inspire films like The Football Factory and Green Street Hooligans. The film is based on the activities of West Ham’s Inter City Firm, and their mischievous acts during the 1970s and 1980s. Oldman’s character Clive Bissel is a man that is living two lives: Family man and football hooligan. Throughout the movie Bissel is trying to combine the two most important parts of his life to no avail. Over 20 years since it’s original release, The Firm still holds it’s own as the definitive hooligan movie.
If you enjoyed this list, be sure to review our Ultimate Guide to Soccer Books, too.