On Sunday, July 8, the World Cup final maintained its status as the world’s most-watched sporting event by drawing more than a billion viewers across the globe. Despite the widespread perception that Americans are unable or unwilling to embrace the beautiful game, U.S. television ratings throughout the month-long tournament were the highest in history, and almost 12 million Americans watched the dramatic finale as Italy defeated France in a penalty kick shootout. Now it’s over. There will be no more late-morning arrivals to the office or lunchtime gatherings at local watering holes to watch games, and fans will have to wait another four long years to cheer their favorite nations on sport’s largest stage. To help temper the bitter withdrawal, here’s a look at some of cinema’s best (no Soccer Dog here) fútbol flicks.
Any discussion of soccer movies must begin with this ’80s-era classic. Loosely following the storyline of The Longest Yard, a team of POWs is challenged to play Germany’s national team at the end of World War II. The prisoners are led by an aging former English footballer (Michael Caine), a brash and brick-headed American goalie (the incomparable Sylvester Stallone) and Pelé. With the exception of those scenes involving a hopelessly un-athletic Caine (he points and yells more than he ever runs or kicks), the soccer sequences (reportedly choreographed by Pelé) are realistic and the final game produces more than a few goosebump-inducing moments.
Mean Machine (2001)
Speaking of The Longest Yard, director Barry Skolnick did his own remake of the prison film, replacing football with fútbol as the sport at the center of the story. Badass Vinnie Jones (Snatch) plays the Burt Reynolds/Adam Sandler part and Jason Statham (The Transporter) is outrageous as the certifiable goaltender. As disappointing and disjointed as the story setup becomes in this version, the final game action is fit for the pitch—stylish, skillful and quick, with some well-timed humor.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
This feel-good film is about a talented Indian footballer who goes against her orthodox family’s wishes to pursue the sport she loves. It’s also about Keira Knightley in a sports bra. Knightley’s pre-superstardom cuteness is so affecting that most men—and surely some women, considering the lesbian subplot—come away sweating like a Turkish midfielder after 90 minutes.
Shaolin Soccer (2001)
How could a fantastical kung fu-inspired soccer comedy be anything but a masterpiece? Applying ancient kung fu teachings, Stephen Chow (who also wrote and directed) trains his right leg to be powerful enough to elevate refrigerators and, eventually, score scorching goals that catch fire while rocketing through the air. Chow assembles a team of misfits for an epic battle against Team Evil (actual team name), in part to earn redemption for a former Evil star done wrong. This goofy gem is essentially a live-action cartoon willing to try anything—there’s a musical number, a love story subplot between Chow and an acne-scarred Noxzema nightmare, and some truly bizarre homoerotic scenes where the obligatory fat guy forcefully eats raw eggs out of his teammates’ mouths. Oh, and the fighting/soccer action at the end—as ridiculous as it may be—is awesome.
Fever Pitch (1997)
In the states this is better known as the Farrelly brothers’ film starring Jimmy Fallon as a Red Sox season ticket holder balancing his love of a perpetually losing team and perpetually pouty Drew Barrymore. The Farrelly movie, however, was adapted from Brit author Nick Hornby’s popular novel about an obsessed soccer fan, and his country made it for the big screen first with Colin Firth playing the lead role. The soccer version is a much better flick, starting with Firth being imminently more watchable than the dopey Fallon. Plus, the UK version sticks to the actual book; the year the Farrelly Brothers were filming, the Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series rought, forcing the ending to be entirely rewritten and re-shot.
The Cup (1999)
In this quiet, subtle Bhutanese film, four young Tibetan boys are sent by their mother to a secluded Himalayan monastery to avoid Chinese oppression. The only hitch is that the boys arrive during the 1998 World Cup and they can’t bear to miss any of the action. It’s a sweetly delivered lesson in evolving traditions and closing generational gaps. It’s also perhaps the best of these films at capturing soccer’s intense popularity, and the lengths some will go to watch the beautiful game.