WARNING! This list does not contain the best fictional soccer movie ever made, Shaolin Soccer. However, this list does contain the greatest soccer movies based on true stories ever to grace the big screen. From Michael Caine helping a team of prisoners of war against a German team during WWII to the infamous 1958 Munich air disaster—this list can perform at Stoke on a cold rainy night.
Escape to Victory
A story of triumph for a group of prisoners of war featuring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, and Pelé is a must watch for those looking for an action packed soccer movie loosely based on real life. The story is based on a “death-match” between Ukrainian POW and Germans during WWII. While it may not be one of the Stallone's best movies, the storyline features allied prisoners of war playing against the German National Team in a propaganda stunt for the Third Reich. The allied POWs pull off a miraculous comeback to secure a draw even when the odds are stacked against them with unfair refereeing. The movie ends in a positive fashion where the POW are able to escape under the guise of a pitch invasion at the final whistle. This is undoubtedly the best soccer movie on the list that is a historical recreation.
The Damned United
Explosive, eccentric, yet brilliant—these adjectives describe the legendary English manager Brian Clough. The Damned United captures both the erratic behavior and innovative ideas possessed and put into practice by the former Nottingham Forest and Derby County trainer. The film allows viewers to enter the tumultuous locker room of Leeds United during Clough’s tenure. The Leeds United players failed to live up to the standards of the beautiful game due to the brash managerial methods of Clough. After quickly alienating many of the star players, Clough got sacked after 44 days of tension as the manager.
Different from the rest of the films on the list, Offside follows the perspective of women in Iran trying to gain access to the beautiful game. The director got the idea for the film by hearing about the experiences of his daughter. On the surface, it may be considered just a comedy. But it represents so much more. It stands for equal treatment for women and the universality of football. No sport can be just a mans' game, and this movie conveys the struggles that women in Iran undergo to experience game-day matches along with trying to kick the footy.
The Game of Their Lives (The Miracle Match)
The director of Rudy and Hoosiers tried to make a perfect trifecta of inspirational sports films about underdogs beating the odds—he certainly delivered. The film follows the US soccer team beating the English squad during the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. The America soccer counter point to the 1980 miracle on ice for the US hockey team beating the USSR, the 1950 US football team has been immortalized for surpassing expectations on the international stage.
Pelé: Birth of a Legend
Get to know the story of one of the most iconic names in football, the Brazilian legend Pelé. Focusing on his younger years, the film's thematic composition conveys the complex relationship between Pelé and his father along with the immense pressure felt by Pelé during the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. My favorite part of the film explained the historical influence of Pelé's playing style, Ginga. Critics of Brazil's loss to Uruguay in the final credit it to the outlandish theatrics of Ginga, but the director does well to tie the playing style as inseparable to Brazilian identity. Subtle undertones of nationalism and class tension underscore Pelé's dramatic rise to stardom. This is a must watch for anyone interested in the history of the selecao or Pelé.
For any Manchester United fan, this is an absolute must watch. The story follows one of the greatest generations of the Red Devils, the Busby Babes. Their achievement of winning the league title with one of the youngest teams is sadly overshadowed by the infamous 1958 Munich air disaster. Following a European Cup match in Belgrade, their airplane crashed after refueling in Munich. The crash claimed the lives of seven Man U players, while star Bobby Charlton escaped nearly unscathed. The film captures many interesting elements of football in the '50s, players smoking pipes before coming on the field and telling girls they were plumbers because they had better income prospects—far off from today's average weekly wage of $65,000 in the Premier League.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
Capture the playing style for one of the best players ever to grace the game. This portrait is more relevant than ever because it sheds light on how one of Real Madrid's former managers thought like a player. The aspect of the film that I found the most appealing was analyzing Zidane's tactical game plan. If you are an avid soccer fan or enjoy watching tactical theory videos on youtube, this is the best soccer film based on real life for you.
Class of '92
Manchester United's financial prowess of today originates from a golden era of young players starting out in Man U's academy and the manager Sir Alex Ferguson. This film captures the story of David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, and Paul Scholes coming from working class families to stunning the world stage. The Class of '92 is the authentic counterpoint to Santiago Munez's rise to glory in Goal!: The Dream Begins.
Cristiano Ronaldo: The World At His Feet
Ronaldo or Messi? The endless debate of soccer fans of this generation. Regardless of who you think is best, it is good to know both stars rise to glory. This documentary captures Ronaldo's meteoric rise to one of the best players in the world, and one of the best players who never won the world cup. Similar to that of The Class of '92, the film allows for viewers to see how Ronaldo's childhood fostered his development. This is a must watch for any young players looking for inspiration or die-hard fans of Ronaldo looking to understand his story.
Similar to Ronaldo: The World at His Feet, this film captures Messi's development since a young child. Interviews and archival footage piece together the history for one of the greatest Barcelona players of all time. Get to know how Messi beat the odds and overcame what was initially thought to be a malediction that would have prevented his professional career. No star reached their level of stardom without sacrifice and aguish. Spend an hour an half of your time getting to know how the little wizard came to bless the world with his gifts.
Whether it's a documentary or a historical recreation, find inspirational content that satisfies your soccer needs. During the low of summer or the thick of the season in the fall, dive deeper into soccer's cultural knowledge by watching the best soccer movies based on true stories.