The Best Football Movies Ever Made

The Esquire Editors
·6-min read
Photo credit: The Damned United
Photo credit: The Damned United

From Esquire

In 2018, FIFA released one of the worst films of all time. United Passions, the glorious story of the governing body’s rise to unimpeachable power, currently holds 0 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and made $319 on its opening day in America. Tone-wise, it was slightly more conceited than Mr Burns' entry into the Springfield film festival. And unlike the many technically terrible football films that came before it, there was no fun or guilty pleasure to be taken from Sepp Blatter’s shameless propaganda drive. As far as we’re aware, there hasn’t even been a single piece of big screen footballing fiction since its release. Well played, FIFA.

We don’t see any on the horizon, either. The only option? Watch the best of what’s come before. Unlike United Passions, these films won’t convince you to jam a pocket knife into every ball you see. From Thirties film noirs to Nineties rom-coms, we've truly got you covered.

Mike Bassett: England Manager

What started out as a send-up of the tragicomic 1994 Graham Taylor documentary, An Impossible Job, has become a classic in its own right. It follows Mike Bassett, an unimpressive lower-league manager who inexplicably lands the England job during the 2002 World Cup qualifiers (after every other suitable candidate rejects it). Cue unrelenting press attacks, player meltdowns and farcical performances. At times hilarious, at times incredibly dated, at times stirring and unexpectedly profound, it’s no surprise that long-suffering England fans have returned to Mike Bassett time and time again.


The Damned United (2009)

It’s been faulted for its historical accuracy, but this brilliantly crafted retelling of Brian Clough’s doomed 44-day stint as Leeds manager, in which he manages to simultaneously alienate his squad, fans, bosses and closest confidante, might just be the greatest football film ever made. As you would expect, Michael Sheen’s performance as Old Big ‘Ead transcends impersonation; he fully captures the legendary Nottingham Forest manager’s essence, his stubborn bombast, sharp mind, and closely guarded insecurities. Likewise, director Tom Hooper (of Cats infamy) captures the lo-fi aesthetic of Seventies British football perfectly.


The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

Trouble is afoot in the marble halls of Highbury. On the eve of World War II, Arsenal are playing a charity match with the (fictitious) Trojans when one of the away team’s players collapses and dies – a vibe-killer that results in the match being called off. Cue a (somewhat convoluted) whodunit investigation by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Slade (played by Leslie Banks), and a couple of enjoyable cameos from Arsenal legends like Cliff Bastin and Ted Drake, as well as their manager, George Allison. The match and crowd footage is surprisingly well-executed (better than Dream Team? Arguably!), and as one of the first football films ever made it’s more than worth your time.


There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble (2000)

The film that Like Mike wishes it was, but one that has been largely forgotten (the only review on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t exactly glowing.) We like it though! A lot! Fifteen-year-old Man City fan Jimmy Grimble can’t play football, can’t talk to girls and can’t stand up for himself at school, where resident bully "Gorgeous" Gordon makes his life a living hell. Things are no better at home with his mum’s extremely rubbish biker boyfriend, Johnny Two Dogs. But Jimmy’s fortunes drastically improve when a mysterious old woman gifts him a pair of tatty boots once owned by one of City’s best ever players. Suddenly he’s the best player on the pitch, pushing his team towards the Manchester Schools Cup final at Maine Road – but not all of his classmates are pleased about his success. A fairly by-numbers coming of age story elevated by an impressive cast (Ray Winstone, Robert Carlyle, Gina McKee, Ben Miller) and a surprisingly funny, touching script.


GOAL! (2005)

If you went out with the express purpose of making the most predictable, prosaic football film of all time, it would still pale in comparison to GOAL!. Made in co-operation with FIFA, the movie’s arch – that of a hardscrabble Mexican immigrant making his way to Europe and proving the haters wrong by scoring slow-motion last-minute winners to the sound of swelling strings – is so cookie cutter that we don’t even mind ruining it for you. Not to mention the fact that those glorious goals often look like they’re destined to go out for a throw-in. But that’s all part of the film’s generic charm. GOAL! is a schmaltzy, outrageously brazen marketing trick, sure, but it’s one we don't mind falling for.


Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Unlike any football film you’ve ever seen (unless you’ve already seen it, in which case move right along). Six Shaolin monk kung-fu masters combine to form a football team and use their gravity-defying martial arts skills to win the National Soccer Cup’s $1 million grand prize, with Team Evil standing in their way. Think The Matrix crossed with Police Story mixed with Naked Gun, and you’re still a million miles off. That’s our fault, really. Guess you’ll just have to watch the film, you won’t regret it.


Fever Pitch (1997)

Based on Nick Hornby’s bestselling memoir of the same name, Paul Ashworth (a fluffy-haired Colin Firth) is a diehard Arsenal fan who finds that his football obsession is getting in the way of a new relationship. Problem is, any attempt to compromise his lifestyle is doomed by Arsenal’s unexpected 1988/89 title run, which culminates in one of the greatest final days in football history. He’s been waiting decades for success and he intends to suffer and savour every second of it, but will he let love slip out of his hands in the process?


Bend It Like Beckham (2001)

All 18-year-old Jess Bhamra wants to do is play football. All her conservative Sikh parents want to do, on the other hand, is steer her towards the traditional route of university and marriage. So when they discover that she’s joined a local women’s football team (and formed a too-close-for-comfort friendship with a white British girl in the squad) they immediately forbid her from taking part – and force her to choose between loyalty to herself or her family. This early-Aughts classic, directed Gurinder Chadha, is tender, funny and perfectly pitched; addressing culture clashes, structural misogyny and homophobia without losing its light, comic touch. A true comfort watch.


Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox


Need some positivity right now? Subscribe to Esquire now for a hit of style, fitness, culture and advice from the experts


You Might Also Like