With so many subtopics to wrap around the core that is football in these documentaries, welcome to The Top 10 Football Documentaries list. Fans will be involved in actual games, managers will threaten player’s lives, the literal worst football team on planet Earth will be mentioned, clubs will go from Sunday-league standard to football’s elite and the biggest controversies in the World Game will be discussed.
10. Orient: Club for a Fiver
A documentary on Leyton Orient’s worst ever season made on a small budget, yet possibly still larger than that of the worth of the club at the time. Directed by Orient fan and film student Jo Treharne, you get a fly on the wall perspective of a dreadful 1994/95 campaign which saw Orient relegated from Football League Two (then the third division).
The plot does follow the form of the side but the real story here is that of John Sitton, head coach of Leyton Orient. His gradual decline from passionate former player turned manager to an intimidating and threatening maniac shows the gravity that the Leyton Orient situation was putting him in. He went so far as to sack a player, fan-favourite Terry Howard, during a half-time team talk. Watching footage of him verbally destroying his players will make you grateful that you’re not the one being yelled at. You wonder how this treatment of players would go down in today’s football environment, perhaps that’s already partially answered in knowing that Sitton was banned from Leyton Orient following the 1994/95 season and never got a job in football management ever again.
Spanish sports magazine program “Informe Robinson” covers the amazing story of Steve Davies, West Ham United fan who played in a pre-season friendly for his beloved Hammers against Oxford City. Davies had attended the pre-season game and, after a few pints of beer and some cigarettes, began berating West Ham striker Lee Chapman for his performance from the sidelines. West Ham manager Harry Redknapp came over to Davies and asked him if he thought he could play better than his centre forward, to which Davies alcohol-induced bravery answered “yes” to. He would go on to score in that game.
Redknapp even managed to convince the crowd that he was a Bulgarian international, saying to the Oxford announcer after he was asked who this guy was, “Ain’t you been watching the World Cup? That’s Tittyshev, the Bulgarian!” The short documentary is narrated in Spanish but all the important information, such as interviews with Davies and his parents, is in English. Pub team players worldwide can use this as inspiration; there’s still hope for you to represent your boyhood side. So long as Harry Redknapp is around, maybe.
PS. Stick around until the end of the video for a little surprise…
8. Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos
The barren wasteland that was football in the United States saw perhaps the biggest transfers of all time single-handedly change the landscape of sport in the country, albeit temporarily. A ragtag team of foreign semi-professional students was transformed into a global commercial presence by one man, Brazilian legend Pele.
The open check book style spending of Steve Ross, Warner Communications head and owner of the club, was a short-sighted approach that was never going to attract die-hard and loyal fans of the sport. The success that signing Pele and other international stars brought to the side was not sustainable, especially for the smaller teams in the league who simply could not gain enough of a following for their respective clubs. Although it is a story in and of itself that 70,000 people packed into the New York Giants stadium in the 1970’s to watch football, or ‘soccer’ as they would say.
Following Pele’s retirement, the New York Cosmos and North American Soccer League began its journey into obscurity and, ultimately, folded. Media outlets lost interest with no major star to bring in the crowds and make headlines; the final of the 1981 season was shown on tape delay. The introduction of a salary cap in 1984 pointed towards the inevitable folding which took place at the end of that season.
7. The Four Year Plan (QPR)
“Four-year plan, you’re having a laugh…”
It wouldn’t have been too hard to disagree with the QPR fans on that one, their club on the brink of bankruptcy in 2007. This documentary follows billionaire investors buying the club, changing the manager several times, players coming in and out of the club not dissimilar to a hotel, complete contempt from the fans from money being pumped into the club with no apparent pay-off, with the ultimate goal of promotion to the English Premier League.
Directed by Mat Hodgson, the real attraction of this documentary is its all-access cameras to show you unrestricted behind-the-scenes footage from the QPR boardroom. The consortium of billionaires Bernie Ecclestone, Flavio Briatore, Alejandro Agag, Lakshmi Mittal and Amit Bhatia combine for the common goal, the documentary showing just how ‘hands on’ they were throughout the process.
6. Jack to a King
In 2002, Swansea were at the bottom professional league in English football. They were close to losing their position as a professional football club, requiring a last day win over Hull City to remain in the Third Division (now Football League 2). The club was also saved at the last minute, this time financially, by the fans. Ten men each donated 50 thousand pounds to keep the club afloat and run as a consortium.
The film is another nice diversion from the constant media attention given to the elite clubs in world football; a true ‘rags to riches’ story. Albeit a lot of information is missing from Swansea’s time in Football League One and Two, they go into detail on the style of football that Roberto Martinez implemented at the club and why it was successful. The fans are paramount in this story; Swansea might very well not be the established Premier League side they are today without the actions of their fans.
5. One Night in Turin
Before the rebranding introduction of the ‘Premier League’, multi-million pound salaries and TV rights, football was in, by comparison, a relatively embryonic phase of existence.
Narrated by Gary Oldman, we travel back some twenty-six years to England’s 1990 World Cup campaign in Italy. We see the state that English football was in during the early 90’s, where hooliganism ran rampant. The Heysel disaster of 1985 meant that British clubs were banned from European competitions and the lies released to the public following the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 only played into the media’s narrative that football was infested with hooligans engaging in rebellious thug-like behaviour. However, there is no escaping from the fact that hooliganism was a serious problem during this era.
On more football matters, ‘Donkeys’ was the branding the media gave their national team heading into the 1990 World Cup. They had become a sort of laughing stock for the media to pick apart (funny how some things never change…). Manager Bobby Robson was under a lot of pressure following a swift exit, including a loss to Ireland, at Euro 88 and the national team was expected to flop once again. Instead they produced England’s best ever showing at a World Cup played on foreign soil, making the semi-finals where they were knocked out by West Germany on penalties. A rollercoaster journey of emotions, from low spirits and expectations prior to the tournament to a surprise semi-final showing that restored pride and belief amongst the English.
4. Next Goal Wins
You can watch as many movies as you want about the glitz and glamour of football, with its capacity crowds in state of the art stadiums played on pitches that look like carpet by the world’s best players, but sometimes the most compelling stories are that at the completely opposite end of the spectrum. This is one of them.
American Samoa is a team that holds the record for the biggest loss in international football, a 31-0 demolition job from Australia. Follow the worst ranked international football side in FIFA rankings ten years on from that loss, still without a victory in competitive fixtures and having only managed two goals in seventeen years. They hope for a change in fortune when Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, having played alongside George Best and Johann Cruyff, joins the helm. Needless to say the drop in quality from the names just mentioned to what he deals with is astronomical, summing it up with saying that this was the “lowest standard of football he had ever seen”.
The day to day procedures with the team resembles a side you might see struggling to make the numbers for a kick about in a Sunday league competition. A lack of athleticism, with only half of the side being able to complete a full game, sounds familiar with a lot of local teams worldwide. Some other issues are a little less common place, such as their best player being forced to go on duty with the US military, a goalkeeper still scarred by conceding those 31 goals against Australia and member of Samoa’s third gender, fa’fafine, playing in the side.
The aim is a successful run in their upcoming 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, but the real story is found understanding the players and coaches of the side. The love they have for the game, earning no money to play, and fighting against the odds. However, the film will make you care more for the people involved and their respective stories rather than football, which makes it a fascinating watch whether or not you follow the sport. This is the biggest underdog story in world football.
3. Becoming Zlatan
As the title suggests we get an inside look at Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s formative years in football. An egotistical, moody genius with a very obvious gift for football goes through the not-so-common pressures an everyday 18-year-old deals with.
Ibrahimovic is shown only in old video footage and we get the perspective from people who dealt directly with the mercurial striker. The inflated sense of worth Ibrahimovic possesses in the year 2016 doesn’t seem to have formed overnight, as we see a young Zlatan drawing dislike for these very same views from players and fans in his early footballing years at Malmo and Ajax. One thing is for sure: Zlatan proved without a doubt that he is as good as he thinks he is and thought he was all those years ago.
2. The Two Escobars (ESPN 30 for 30)
Andres Escobar, captain of the Colombian national team. Pablo Escobar, drug lord of Colombia. Unrelated, yet their two separate worlds were always bound to collide when the underworld of Colombia was financially supporting the national team. Come the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Colombia were hot favourites to go all the way. Pablo’s money was placed firmly in that basket. Colombia failed to advance from the group stage, Andres scoring an own goal in the game against the USA. Andres was shot dead ten days later.
Interviews with players, families, coaches and referees gives a fascinating insight into the situation in Colombia at the time. Football is indeed involved but it’s the focus on the country’s poverty, politics, drugs, murder and history that makes for such compelling viewing. Directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist comprehensively cover the topic from as many angles as possible, even managing to interview Pablo Escobar’s hit men.
1. Hillsborough (ESPN 30 for 30)
I’m not sure I could make a Top 10 Football Documentaries list without including this. A chilling piece on the Hillsborough disaster of April 15, 1989, when 96 people who went to watch a football game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest never came home. British tabloid ‘The Sun’ presented this as its front page just four days after the tragedy.
Mainstream media lead people to believe that ‘hooligans’ were responsible for the death of 96 people. In this documentary, we see interviews from fans who attended the game, police officers (many who appeared on camera for the first time) and family members who lost their loved ones. The most questioning aspect of all of this is the fact that these people were basically silenced for over twenty years; ‘The Sun’ was not held accountable for its disgraceful and manipulative headline from 1989 until 2012! This was their new headline.
Directed by Daniel Gordon, a Sheffield Wednesday fan (Hillsborough is their home ground), the film seeks for truth and justice for the families of the 96. The actions of police, politicians and the media helped form people’s opinions of that day in 1989. It was not until the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel Report destroyed those myths and exposed those in authority for their deception that people who only knew of ‘The Sun’ and media reports could come to their own conclusions of what happened that day.