Judging by ESPN’s ratings for the current World Cup in Brazil, the soccer bandwagon might have finally made its way to America.
According to data by the Nielsen ratings company, the U.S.-Portugal match two Sundays ago averaged 24.7 million viewers on ESPN and Univision.
That puts it way ahead of this year’s NBA Finals (15.5 million viewers), as well as the 2013 World Series (14.9 million). It also marks the highest-rated soccer-related broadcast in ESPN history.
Unlike other sports that have all had great movies made about them, though, including baseball (“Field of Dreams,” “The Rookie,” “The Natural”), football (“Remember the Titans,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Any Given Sunday”), basketball (“Hoop Dreams,” “Space Jam” and, uh … “Teen Wolf”) or even hockey (“Miracle”), there just aren’t all that many soccer movies, period, let alone many classics.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few worth checking out, though, especially for soccer fans who need to feed World Cup fever in between games.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the best soccer-related films that might appeal to soccer fans of all ages.
“Shaolin Soccer” — Writer/director/star Stephen Chow might not be a household name in the U.S., but he should be. Along with some of his other films like “Kung Fu Hustle” and the recently released “Journey to the West,” “Shaolin Soccer” is just a blast to watch.
For anyone unfamiliar with Chow’s style, imagine something halfway between a live-action Looney Tunes episode and cheesy, old-school Shaw Bros. martial arts movies, except better than that probably makes it sound.
In “Shaolin Soccer,” Chow plays Mighty Steel Leg Sing, a Shaolin monk who comes up with the idea of using soccer as a missionary tool to promote the art of kung fu. Along with his five superhumanly gifted brothers and a disgraced former soccer star named Golden Leg Fung, Sing begins assembling a kung fu/soccer dream team to compete against the appropriately named Team Evil.
“Escape to Victory” — Loosely based on a true story, this movie is something of an oddball (no pun intended), as one could probably guess just based on its cast. Directed by John Huston, it stars Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Pelé as allied POWs who get roped into playing against an all-star Nazi soccer team as part of a German propaganda effort. With the help of the French Resistance, though, the exhibition match becomes the basis of an ambitious escape plan.
“The Game of Their Lives” — It says a lot about how much less exposure soccer has in the U.S. versus other sports that almost nobody has heard of this movie.
Directed by David Anspaugh, the man responsible for one of the greatest basketball films ever made (“Hoosiers”) and one of the greatest football films ever made (“Rudy”), this fact-based period drama disappeared pretty much as soon as it was released. Even with big names like Gerard Butler and Patrick Stewart, it earned less than $400,000 at the box office.
Nevertheless, the story it tells is a pretty remarkable one. Set during the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, “The Game of Their Lives” portrays the U.S.’s incredible 1-0 victory against England, a feat so unexpected that The New York Times refused to even publish the score, thinking it was a hoax. Other than star Wes Bentley (“The Hunger Games”), the majority of the cast, including Butler (who once dreamed of becoming a pro soccer player himself), was selected first and foremost for their skills on the pitch.
“Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos” — A 2006 documentary about a brief, mostly forgotten period in the U.S. when soccer was able to draw crowds that rivaled baseball or football games.
Focusing on the New York Cosmos, it tells the story of the rise of the North American Soccer League in the late 1960s and its fall less than two decades later. Necessary watching for soccer fans and sports history buffs alike, especially for the perspective it gives on Brazilian superstar Pelé, who played for the Cosmos before retiring in 1977.
“Gracie” — Another soccer movie loosely based on real events, this one actually draws inspiration from the life of one of its stars, Elisabeth Shue, who played soccer on an all-male team when she was younger. (The vintage home video footage shown during the opening and closing credits is actually of Shue herself.)
All in all, it’s not the most unpredictable story. Carly Schroeder plays a teenage girl growing up in the late ’70s who faces gender discrimination when she tries to break into the world of competitive soccer. That said, it received generally positive reviews when it was released back in 2007. Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times described it as a “familiar underdog story told with unusual sensitivity.” Well worth a watch for soccer-obsessed families.
“Sixty Six” — As any soccer fan will attest, soccer is more than just a game; it’s a part of life. For all the movies about soccer itself, there are even more that capture that aspect of the sport, portraying big matches as the backdrop to other stories, as in this period film set in England during the summer of ’66 about Bernie Rubens (Gregg Sulkin), a boy determined to make his Bar Mitzvah one for the ages — even after it begins to look like it might land on the same day England is set to play Germany in the World Cup final.
As the rest of the country celebrates England’s back-to-back victories, Bernie tries everything he can think of to make sure his team loses.
Eddie Marsan (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and Helena Bonham Carter (“Alice in Wonderland,” Bellatrix Lestrange from the Harry Potter movies) co-star.
Jeff Peterson contributes to the film discussion website filminquiry.com.