Every four years, the World Cup offers something not unlike the movies: For a whole month, it stops time, enveloping its distant spectators in the electric-green glow of the screen.
But there’s more to the “beautiful game” than balletic ball-moves and the cheek-gnawing suspense of gameplay characterized by low score count. Ladj Ly’s 2019 crime thriller, “Les Misérables,” set in the immigrant-populated underworld of the Parisian banlieues, paints it vividly: In the opening minutes, we’re plunged into the Champs-Élysées, where throngs of fans draped in red, white and blue celebrate France’s victory at the 2018 World Cup. The pulsing moment is one of communal exultation at odds with the film’s forthcoming depiction of a fractious multiethnic society.
“The thing about football — the important thing about football — is that it is not just about football,” the English author Terry Pratchett wrote in the novel “Unseen Academicals.” This observation could very well apply to all sports built on mass followings and billion-dollar business deals, but soccer — a potent symbol of globalization heavy with historical baggage — is uniquely revealing: The game is a prism through which the ever-evolving world, and the interconnected fortunes of people from disparate parts of it, comes to light.
No wonder soccer movies are often eclectic and at times unclassifiable, drawing from multiple continents and genres. Take John Huston’s World War II adventure drama “Escape to Victory.” Pelé, the legendary Brazilian striker, is joined by Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, and real-life professional footballers from across Europe and North and South America to play ball against Nazi rivals. And from Hong Kong, there’s Stephen Chow’s hit kung fu comedy “Shaolin Soccer,” a nod to the fast-growing popularity of soccer throughout Asia, released one year before the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Not that soccer films are all about global cooperation and underdog badassery; other films poke fun at the game’s biggest icons. For this, see the brilliantly unhinged “Diamantino,” a surreal Portuguese spy movie spoof featuring a Cristiano Ronaldo look-alike who gets in the zone by imagining himself in a cotton-candy field surrounded by elephant-size Pomeranians.
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the first ever held in a Middle Eastern nation, has courted countless controversies, with the host country’s conservative traditions starkly at odds with the sport’s modern fandoms. FIFA and Qatar have been pelted with charges of corruption and bribery, but most harrowing, perhaps, are reports of the country’s exploitative use of migrant labor, resulting in the deaths of thousands of workers from primarily South Asian and African countries. The documentary “The Workers Cup” (2018) takes us to the labor camps erected on the outskirts of Doha, where we meet a handful of soccer-enthusiast workers who come to terms with the underpinnings of a brutal industry — the same one responsible for nurturing their own athletic dreams.
Since the start of the tournament, fans and players have spoken out about the region’s thorny politics (including the criminalization of homosexuality) and religious practices. On this front, and on the matter of soccer’s ability to ease or exacerbate ethnic tensions, the documentary “Forever Pure” (2017) comes to mind. Directed by Maya Zinshtein, it traces one of the ugliest episodes in Israeli soccer, doubling as an exposé into what it sees as the country’s systemic racism. Consisting of interviews with the players, owners and fans of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, the documentary examines the reactions of these individuals against the addition of two Muslim players to the team — and the language of racial purity used to justify their opposition.
Less inflammatory but similarly illuminating are two documentaries that plumb political dimensions through intensely personal stories of soccer obsession — both by the Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu. The first, “The Second Game,” features voice-over commentary from Porumboiu and his father as the two watch a 1988 match refereed by the elder Porumboiu between two of Romania’s leading squads. The game takes place one year before the revolution that toppled the country’s totalitarian leader, Nicolae Ceausescu — a period in which Romanian soccer was openly a tool of political scheming; one team was associated with the military, the other with the secret police. At the same time, there’s the slightest hint of nostalgia as the two men look back on several players, considered part of Romania’s golden generation of soccer, who would eventually leave the country to play for more prestigious professional teams in Western Europe.
The second film, “Infinite Football,” introduces us to a hobbling ex-footballer-turned-pencil-pusher with an elaborate plan to reinvent the rules of the game, to better prevent injuries like the one that ended his athletic career. It’s a parable for the fractured state of Romania itself through the lens of one man’s desperate attempt to fix what broke him.
In the first week of this year’s tournament, members of the Iranian team refused to sing the national anthem before their game against England — a display of solidarity with an ongoing protest movement against Iran’s leadership, spurred by the killing of a young woman in police custody. The confluence of these events brings to mind one of the great soccer movies of the past twenty years, “Offside” (2007) by Jafar Panahi, the Iranian master currently imprisoned for his political beliefs. A pointed critique of the country’s misogynist strictures delivered at the pitch of a dark comedy, the film follows a group of women who have been caught disguising themselves as men to enter a Tehran stadium where a match will determine Iran’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup.
Like “Offside,” several international films consider the way soccer fandom pits modernity against traditional ways of life, simply through the struggles of people attempting to watch a game. “The Cup” (2000) was the first film from Bhutan to be submitted for an Oscar, featuring real-life Tibetan monks swept up in the frenzy of the 1998 World Cup. A group of novices lead makeshift soccer games using a can of Coca-Cola as a ball, and at night sneak away from the monastery to watch the Cup in a nearby cottage. Granted permission to set up a television on monastery grounds for the final game between France and Brazil, the boys race to collect funds for a satellite dish and set up the device in time for kickoff.
The same dynamic plays out across three different remote locations in Gerardo Olivares’s gentle mockumentary “The Great Match” (2006), which is also structured around the struggle to watch a World Cup final — the 2002 showdown between Brazil and Germany. The film follows the misadventures of three unrelated groups of soccer fans: Kazakh nomads from the Eastern Mongolian steppes, camel-mounted Berber tribespeople in the Sahara, and Indigenous Amazonians.
Both films present the love of soccer as a universal bond, a bitter pill considering it might also be the only common ground between us viewers and these disappearing cultures — soccer, after all, is nothing if not a tool of cultural hegemony. At the same time, though the stakes aren’t a matter of life or death, the passion of these fans — the way they persist in their efforts to seize a small slice of pleasure in a world of tireless work, exile and material hardship — might say something about what soccer would have to offer were it stripped of its territorial fanatics and its billion-dollar pomp and ceremony.
Where to Stream These Soccer Movies
Stream “Les Misérables” on Amazon Prime Video.
Rent “Escape to Victory” on multiple digital platforms.
Stream “Shaolin Soccer” on Paramount+ or the Criterion Channel.
Stream “Diamantino” on major digital platforms.
Stream “The Workers Cup” on multiple digital platforms.
Rent “Forever Pure” on Apple TV.
Stream “The Second Game” on the Criterion Channel or Mubi.
Stream “Infinite Football” on the Criterion Channel or Kanopy.
Stream “Offside” on the Criterion Channel.
Stream “The Cup” on the Criterion Channel.
Stream “The Great Match” on Tubi or Film Movement Plus.