A good documentary will make you see its subject in a new light. It will peel back the curtain and reveal complexities and truths that are not necessarily visible to those without insider knowledge. It will also appeal to a wide range of people regardless of the level of their prior interest in the subject matter.
The 10 documentaries listed below all do these things to some degree. They are unlikely to turn the soccer doubters of the world into devout believers, but they are compelling, entertaining films capable of holding an audience’s attention. There are no guarantees in this life, but it is possible that your non-soccer-loving partner will sit through one, or even all, of these films without wanting to kill you for making them do it.
Again: This is possible, but not guaranteed. There are a wide range of styles and subjects covered in this list, so know your audience and for God’s sake choose wisely.
1. Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)
Once in a Lifetime tells the story of the great American soccer revolution that almost was. The North American Soccer League was launched in 1968 without a great deal of fanfare. Attendance at games was low, facilities were unimpressive, and the quality of the soccer was generally poor. All of this changed in 1975 when Steve Ross decided he wanted to do the impossible. He wanted his New York Cosmos to become a soccer superpower. He wanted to bring the best players in the world to his team, and he wanted to essentially sell soccer to the American people. He brought Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and a host of other colorful personalities onboard, and for the briefest window brought soccer to the American people in glorious style. The New York Cosmos were more like a touring rock’n’roll band than a soccer team, but the dream was short-lived and ultimately fell apart. The film is a sharp, lively retelling of the events with some fantastic footage of the era.
2. The Four Year Plan (2011)
In 2007, QPR where a struggling team. They were at the bottom of English soccer’s second tier and on the verge of bankruptcy when a few billionaire businessmen swooped in looking for something to do with their time and money. They bought the team and put in place a four-year plan to take the club back to the promised land that is the English Premier League. This fly-on-the-wall style documentary gives viewers an uncommon amount of access to the behind-the-scenes business of modern sport. It is a fascinating film made all the more exciting by the success of the endeavor. QPR were promoted to the Premier League in 2011, but getting there was anything but smooth sailing.
3. Kicking It (2008)
Kicking It follows the stories of six different people as they train for, and compete in, a street soccer tournament known as the Homeless World Cup. As its name implies, the tournament, founded in 2001, is played by homeless people from all over the world. It offers participants horizon-broadening opportunities otherwise unavailable to them, and it demonstrates what a potent force soccer can be when it is aligned with a positive social cause. The film’s six subjects, hailing from a diverse range of countries, are all magnetic personalities who are inspired by their experience with the tournament to make changes in their lives and attempt to rise above their day-to-day circumstances.
4. The Two Escobars (2010)
You wouldn’t know it watching James Rodriguez and his teammates doing their dance routines at this year’s World Cup, but Colombian soccer has a dark and troubled past. The development of the national team in the 1980s and 90s was widely suspected to have been funded by the Medellin drug cartel run by the notorious Pablo Escobar. The team’s rise on the world stage was impressive, but it took a tragic turn at the 1994 World Cup when Andres Escobar (no relation to the drug baron), scored an own-goal against the U.S. in the early stages of the tournament. The player was executed 10 days later in Colombia. The film explores the dark history surrounding the episode, and draws not unexpected connections between the player’s killers and the Medellin cartel. It is chilling but fascinating stuff.
5. The Class of ‘92 (2013)
The class of ‘92 were the envy of every soccer-loving kid in the U.K. throughout the 1990s. For fans of Manchester United, they were the source of glorious celebration. For everyone else, they represented torture. David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Phillip Neville were kids living the dream. They came up through Man United’s youth system, graduated to the first team together, and essentially conquered the world. Nothing of the like has been seen since. The six gifted players, together since childhood, rose to prominence at a time when soccer players were becoming celebrities on a par with pop stars in the UK, and Manchester United was, not for the first time, becoming a ubiquitous and dominant force in European soccer. The film offers unprecedented insight into the dynamic of the team and its personalities, and gives a snapshot of an era in British popular culture when the city of Manchester seemingly had the world at its feet.
6. Pelada (2012)
Pelada is a beautiful tribute to the game of soccer. Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham were talented college-level soccer players in the U.S. who narrowly missed out on professional careers in the sport. That they didn’t quite make the grade did not dampen their enthusiasm and love for the game, however, and Pelada is a document of a journey they took to celebrate its universal allure. Visiting 25 countries and playing pickup games wherever possible, the pair reveal soccer to be, at its most basic and pure form, a universal language capable of bringing together strangers. From construction sites to prison-yards, soccer serves as a unifying and exhilarating force on their journey, as they connect with people from all walks of life in a diverse variety of cultures. At its core, Pelada is about much more than soccer. It is a life-affirming, feel-good movie about the human race.
7. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006)
More of a silent art film than a documentary, this one will only appeal to a very specific type of viewer. Filmmakers Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno set up 17 cameras around the Bernabeu stadium for a 2005 match between Real Madrid and Villarreal, all trained on one man exclusively: Zinedine Zidane. The result is a striking visual portrait-in-motion of one of the game’s greatest players. In following the player’s movements in real time, on and off the ball, we are given an unusual perspective on the game of soccer. Thanks to the searing, atmospheric score composed and performed by the Scottish art-rock band Mogwai, as well as accompanying text from interviews in which the player reflects on childhood memories and attitudes toward the game of soccer, the overall effect is mesmerising. Viewers hoping to learn much about Zidane’s life will be sorely disappointed, but those ready to lose themselves in an immersive and dramatic viewing experience will be rewarded richly.
8. Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story (2011)
If rags-to-riches stories about never giving up on impossible dreams are your thing, then this 2011 documentary about Jay DeMerit is probably for you. DeMerit’s story is the stuff of Hollywood formulas. He failed to make the grade as a youth in the U.S., but instead of giving up on the dream of becoming a professional soccer player, headed to Europe at the age of 21 with little more than his backpack and his dreams. Starting at the very bottom in Sunday leagues and working his way up through the lower divisions in England to eventually play in the Premier League and represent his country at the 2010 World Cup, DeMerit’s route to the top was unconventional and inspiring. It’s the kind of story that could make for a grating cliche-fest in the hands of a Hollywood director, but in documentary form it is a compelling and thrilling ride.
9. Puskas Hungary (2009)
Puskas Hungary tells the story of one of soccer’s early international legends. Ferenc Puskas is arguably the most famous person to ever come from the country of Hungary. He was revered and admired by people all over the world, including the likes of Pele and Beckenbauer. Adoration in his homeland turned sour, however, as he fled Hungary in 1956 and went on to become a star of Real Madrid and the Spanish national team. One of the most widely loved players of his time, Puskas seems to have had an ability to adapt to his surroundings and embrace new people and languages wherever he went. Tamas Almasi’s film is a warm and touching tribute to the man, which highlights above all else the generosity of his spirit as a player, coach, and ambassador for the Hungarian people.
10. The Referees (Les Arbitres) (2009)
No one in the game of soccer is under more pressure. No one is subject to more abuse. No one has more responsibility. The referees of the world exist in a reality that only they fully understand. This 2009 documentary offers a fascinating and revealing window into the world they inhabit. Following a group of referees at the 2008 European Championships, Les Arbitres gives us a glimpse of the extreme challenges faced by match officials at the highest level. Their job is virtually impossible to carry out flawlessly, and yet they are judged publicly by millions in an unforgiving, unrelenting manner. They are also judged by a panel who determine the quality of their performance and decide whether or not they advance in the tournament they are officiating. Viewing this film will give you a new appreciation for the card-wielding whistle-blowers of this world, and it will also give you new insight into the dynamics of a major soccer tournament.