Football is a topic often featured in films; with its prominence in our society as a cultural common ground for individuals across the nation, it’s no surprise the sport spreads its wings across narrative and documentary forms alike. From films that focus on the legends of today, the past heroes of the game and fictional explorations of the impact the game has on social groups; there’s a wealth of films out there that represent football as a coming together of difference.
Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 classic Bend It Like Beckham is no doubt one of the most notable football films out there. The comedy-drama, starring Kiera Knightley and Parminder Nagra, dissects the tensions between religion and society through the game of football. It’s a culture clash that understands the true meaning of football that is often forgotten as fans are swept away with competition: the way it unites individuals to create a community of those with a common interest – their team. Alongside the classic British comedy, Hollywood has also taken its chances with the sports theme. The 2006 American romantic comedy She’s the Man saw the infamous Amanda Bynes alongside Channing Tatum in a Shakespeare inspired ‘she’s not who she says she is’ narrative. Viola (Bynes) joins her brother’s new boarding school and pretends to be a man just to be able to play the ‘boys only’ game of soccer. The film is not quite as critically acclaimed as Bend it Like Beckham, but it remains a football film for everyone – not just football fans.
In more recent years, football documentaries have been on the rise again. The popular Ronaldo (2015) outlines the highs and lows of the footballer’s career and the more recent Diego Maradona (2019) documentary which offered archived footage of the Argentinian legend – shortly before his tragic death a year later. Documentaries in football stretched as far as Steve Barron’s 2001 mockumentary flick Mike Bassett: England Manager that spoofed the behind-the-scenes of being the top manager of the nation. Ricky Tomlinson stars as the questionable lower-league coach whose rise to England manager is depicted through satirical voiceovers and cameos from random British stars. The link between comedy and reality is a classic trope for football films, as audiences love the game but also need a break from the expectations of their team.
Football has even reached the realms of the crime and gangster genre, with Danny Dyer’s The Football Factory (2004) becoming a rogue cultural phenomenon in the early 2000s. Dyer, more recently known for his stint on BBC’s Eastenders, even hosted spin-offs of the show which followed the much-loved documentary football style. It’s not only The Football Factory that gained a cult following, as the now ever-present star Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy-fame rose to greater notability after his appearance as protagonist Pete Dunham in the 2005 football hooliganism film Green Street. Unlike Danny Dyer’s arguably quite awful 2004 flick, Green Street earned a more positive critical response through its sensibility and deep exploration of the impact football has upon individuals (predominantly men) and its ability to cause a great, and often dangerous divide, amongst young males. The film depicts the rivalry of West Ham United and its surrounding London teams, promoting two spin-offs that slowly began to break the popularity and cycle of football films.
It’s not only dramatic narratives that football incites out of cinema, as over time the sport has become a popular mode of discussion for modern social and cultural impact. Ben A. Williams’ 2016 drama film The Pass, which stars Russell Tovey and Arinze Kene, depicts a different side of cinema by exploring the romantic relationship that develops between two teammates over the course of a decade playing by each others side. The film was a critical success, as it was one of the first LGBTQ+ football films, therefore making a big statement and needed change within the rigid genre.
Football has always been prevalent in the world of film, reflecting its relevance in our fandom-loving culture; yet as times move on, maybe it’s about time the sport and the genre do too. With racism at its utmost and only a handful of footballers feeling the acceptance of coming out in the sport, perhaps film needs to make a move towards progression and a movement away from tradition.