The people we admire on the football pitch are often held up as superhuman heroes, and that’s what makes the chance to see the human behind the facade quite so enticing.
The best football documentaries offer exactly that. Netflix’s most recent addition to the long and varied list of films on the matter was Pelé, a portrait of the Brazilian legend that, while not quite giving the full picture of his life and career, was still entirely fascinating.
If it’s put you in the mood for more football on film, then here are five superb documentaries to check out — they cover everything from sporting genius and woeful failure, and a fair amount in between.
Hopes were high for Asif Kapadia’s deep dive into the storied life and career of Diego Maradona, after he did such a sterling job with Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse. What he ended up delivering was a documentary rich enough to do the near-mythical Argentine justice, exploring both his undoubted sporting genius and his seemingly inescapable demons. The absence of any visual talking heads, and a complete reliance on previously unseen archive footage, immerses you in the footballer’s mad, sad, glorious world.
Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube
Finding Jack Charlton
The late Jack Charlton was a World Cup winner for England, but it was as manager of the Irish national team in the Eighties and Nineties that he really won hearts and minds. The magic of his squad’s adventure to the ‘94 World Cup led to Charlton being awarded honorary Irish citizenship, but as this tenderly made film shows us, the cruel onset of his dementia had since wiped almost all memory of the time. Archive footage of Charlton’s larger-than-life personality is set against his modern-day self, as his family try to help him navigate the affliction. It’s a tear-jerker, but a real affirmation of just what kind of a man Charlton was.
Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube
Sunderland ‘Til I Die
Poor old Sunderland. They’ve hardly been given the most glowing of documentary treatments over the years, first appearing in 1998’s Premier Passions, which chronicled the team’s relegation from the top flight. This Netflix documentary picks up 19 years later, as the Black Cats began tumbling even further down the football pyramid. It’s a relentlessly depressing watch, with all glimmers of hope extinguished time after time, but the enduring commitment of the club’s fanbase will strike a deep chord with supporters of any club who feel let down both on the pitch and in the boardroom.
An Impossible Job
It’s baffling now to think why on earth Graham Taylor would have given a documentary crew such intimate access to his ill-fated time as England manager in the Nineties, to the point that he and his staff were mic’d up on the touchline during matches. But rather than paint Taylor as some sort of buffoon — as the vulturous sports press of the time did — the film ends up standing testament to his character. Yes, some of his semi-sensical one-liners, blurted out as his team stumbled through an unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign, have become the stuff of legend (“Do I not like that!”, “Can we not knock it?!”). But beneath it all, this was a man who, under immense pressure and no lack of injury setbacks, made an honest try of what is quite rightly described as an impossible job.
The Two Escobars
The most tangential football documentary on our list is worth a watch for how fascinatingly it depicts the intersection between sport and crime. It focuses on two Colombian namesakes — the murderous, all-powerful drug lord Pablo Escobar, and the well-respected international footballer Andrés Escobar — who became entwined in a way that shamed the country and shocked the world. If you know the fate of either man, you’ll be intrigued to see exactly how it got to that point; if not, dive in and be enthralled.