The World Cup is here! The four long years of exile, pain, and longing are finally over. But while the most popular sporting event on the globe has inspired billions and influenced almost every area of life, from religion to fashion, film has remained surprisingly untouched. There are very few movies about the football, at least in the English-speaking world, which may have something to do with the sport’s minority status here in the U.S. But to help you get into the World Cup mood—even if football isn’t usually your cup of tea—we’ve picked three movies that capture the glory and the pain, the passion and the politics, of the beautiful game.
“Bend It Like Beckham” (2002)
Cast: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Juliet Stevenson, Anupam Kher, Shaheen Khan, Archie Panjabi
Available to rent from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Meet Jess. Jess (Parminder Nagra) loves football. She plays it in the park with the boys, talks to her poster of David Beckham before bed, and dreams of playing professionally. However, her parents, orthodox Sikhs, have different plans for her. Thus, we have not only a sports movie, but a story about family, competing identities, and clashing cultures. Funny and smart, “Bend It Like Beckham” pokes fun of at traditional culture but conveys its underlying warmth and dignity. Nagra cuts a very likable figure, Juliet Stevenson is absurdly funny as an air-headed mother, and the movie uses montages to great effect. Incidentally, the movie holds the unlikely honor of being the first Western film to air on North Korean television, after an edited version appeared on state television in 2010. If that’s not enough to make you watch it, nothing will.
“The Damned United” (2009)
Cast: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Graham
Available to purchase streaming from Amazon Instant and iTunes, rent on disc from Netflix
Before he tried to teach kings to speak and Russell Crowe to sing, Tom Hooper provided a platform for one of English football’s most notoriously outspoken characters. A (liberally fictionalized) account of how Brian Clough, wunderkind manager of upstart Derby County, earned a disastrous and hilariously brief tenure with his arch-nemesis Leeds United, Hooper’s film marked the fifth and possibly most fruitful collaboration between screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) and star Michael Sheen, with Sheen delivering his best performance to date as the brash, charmingly smarmy Yorkshireman. Undoubtedly not the most accurate version of events, “The Damned United” nonetheless delivers as a parable of personal rivalry and betrayal, as Clough struggles to first impress then topple his counterpart at Leeds, Don Revie (Meaney), while maintaining his close friendship with assistant coach Peter Taylor (the always-excellent Spall).
“The Two Escobars” (2010)
Streaming on Amazon Prime and Netflix, available to purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes
The fraught and scandalous lead-up to this year’s World Cup has given us a glimpse of some of the ugliness that can result when football, nationalism and crime collide; but it would hardly be the first time these forces tangled with each other. This exceptional ESPN documentary concerns the death of Andrés Escobar, the star captain of Colombia’s national team in the early 1990’s, found shot only two weeks after committing a humiliating and team-crippling own goal against the U.S. in the 1994 World Cup. Whether or not the athlete’s murder was retribution from the cartels over their resulting gambling debts, or simply the work of an errant, petty thug, “The Two Escobars” is a sobering portrait of the lawlessness of Colombian society at the time: the joy and pride of the Beautiful Game swallowed by the whims of drug lords and madmen.