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Soccer documentaries: What to watch and what to skip

Take a virtual tour of the world through these soccer programs.

Leeds United v Huddersfield Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

I live, breathe, eat, and sleep soccer. I spend all day thinking about soccer for work, watch games, play Football Manager in my spare time, listen to soccer podcasts all the time, and yes, even watch soccer documentaries in my downtime.

Have I watched them all? No, there’s actually quite a few of them these days. But I’ve watched a bunch. Here’s my recommendations in case you need to watch something soccer-related to get your fix with the world shut down due to coronavirus (or any time, really).

Also, if you haven’t watched the LAFC documentary on ESPN+, We Are LAFC, that’s always a good option, too.

Sunderland ‘til I Die (Netflix)

If you’ve watched any sports documentary, generally the rule is that it’s controlled to a large extent (or entirely) by the club, and as a result much of the drama is either ignored or totally canned. Reality TV has a grammar, and that can be overlaid on sports docs, too.

However, what makes Sunderland ‘til I Die special is that it’s the behind-the-scenes look of a crisis season. Sunderland AFC had just been relegated from the Premier League, so what better way to document their triumphant return to the top flight the following season?

If you know the story, that’s not how the 2017-18 English Championship season went for the Black Cats. While there’s still some reality TV poking through — a weird brief cameo by Jack Rodwell, who was vilified for wanting to see out the contract that Sunderland had willingly signed him to — the carnage on display is incredible. Only a club whose ownership is falling apart would allow a train wreck like this to be released for posterity, but fortunately that’s just what happened, and Sunderland survived, and we got to see what it’s like when everything goes wrong.

Should you watch it? Yes, this is the best of the lot that I’ve seen. Maybe watch one of the mediocre ones first and then circle back to this one if you have a lot of down time, it’ll be worth the wait.

Hillsborough (ESPN+)

This 30 for 30 documentary is one of the very best in that venerable series, telling the story of Liverpool fans and their families to clear the names of those who died in a horrible stadium accident in 1989. If you aren’t familiar with the story of the initial disaster, and then the subsequent attempts to cover up the negligence and smear the dead who couldn’t defend themselves, it is incredibly eye-opening. And the dignity afforded to those who had to fight for decades for the actual truth to come out is an example of storytelling being elevated as both entertainment and service.

Should you watch it? Fair warning, there are parts of this that will make your stomach churn, whether you’re familiar with the story or not, but it’s the kind of soccer documentary that non-soccer fans will want to watch, too, and it’s a story that every soccer fan needs to know.

The Two Escobars (ESPN+)

The OG 30 for 30 soccer documentary, The Two Escobars set the bar for outstanding storytelling through the prism of soccer. Recounting Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, focusing on the intertwined stories of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (who owned a pro club himself) and defender Andres Escobar, who gave up an own goal to the USMNT in the 1994 World Cup that may or may not have led to his assassination months later, it’s a history story with tons of context, incredible footage, and in a pre-Narcos age, fascinating back story on both soccer and the drug trade at an era when both were at their height in Colombia.

Should you watch it? If you haven’t, stop what you’re doing and check it out now. One of the very best 30 for 30 docs ever, no matter the subject.

Diego Maradona (HBO)

This is a feature-length documentary made by Asif Kapadia, who made similar documentaries on race car driver Ayrton Senna and singer Amy Winehouse.

As someone who had a lot more background knowledge of Diego Maradona than Senna and Winehouse, I heavily respected this movie but didn’t feel the same emotional attachment to it as Kapadia’s previous movies. It’s still well-made and the volume of incredible archive footage used is amazing (although the sound mixing is terrible, every kick of the ball sounds like a car door slamming shut), but maybe because Maradona is still alive, the tragedy in the story is there, but more subtle than you might imagine.

Should you watch it? Yes, absolutely. Even if you don’t connect as much to the story as you thought, the precious footage of Italian football in the 1980s is truly incredible.

This is Football (Amazon Prime)

Now if you’re looking for a soccer documentary to make you cry, this is it. This series by Amazon Prime is six separate episodes looking at the sport from a special angle. Props to this for including women’s soccer, too, with an episode that flips the 2011 World Cup narrative from a familiar one to American audiences and centers it on the Japanese team that won the tournament after a national tragedy. The first episode, on Liverpool fans from Rwanda trying to pick up the pieces as a society after a genocide, left me crying big tears. This is a great show.

Should you watch it? Yes, you definitely should. These are heavy stories but since each one is different, you get a new sense of the world in each one. I definitely think they captured the “triumph of the spirit” that makes the stories so compelling.

Take us Home: Leeds United (Amazon Prime)

This one is similar in some ways to the Sunderland documentary, as former English giant Leeds United sought to document the season they hoped would mean they finally escaped the English Championship and gained promotion to the Premier League. Alas!

This documentary has the trappings of a tightly-controlled club doc — there is way too much time spent with the owner, making him out to be a cool guy who cares so much, you guys. And the manager doesn’t bother to acknowledge the documentary crew until after the season, which normally means the story is super boring, but in this case it was Marcelo Bielsa, who speaks like a soccer monk but who is also probably the most influential coach in the world and who is pretty fascinating no matter the circumstance. Add to it two massive scandals that happened to Leeds during the season, and in spite of the effort to make it a slick production that made Leeds look sexy with a triumphant narrative, the story actually shines through in spite of that. Also, the opening credits song is probably the very best one.

Should you watch it? Yes. This one is my dividing line between the top documentaries and the average ones, but it’s still a good watch and Bielsa and the various amazing storylines make it worthwhile.

All or Nothing: Manchester City (Amazon Prime)

This is where we get into the decent but not amazing group of documentaries. Like the Leeds one with Bielsa, probably the most interesting part of this documentary is watching Pep Guardiola at work, stabbing at a white board in the locker room and spitting out his directions in a barely-coiled rage, and you can’t tell if he’s mad at the world or is just really intense or if he fears he will be let down and is already seething at seeing the quest for perfection come up short.

There’s also a fair number of perfunctory footage of players showing you their living rooms, with partners and children or pets. It’s a nice peek into their lives but this is a documentary definitely heavily controlled by the club and the actual drama is largely whatever.

Should you watch it? I’d say this is somewhat interesting but it’s probably most useful for the Man City fans, Pep Guardiola fans, Anglophiles and people who will watch any soccer stuff.

Boca Juniors Confidential (Netflix)

This one is interesting for a few reasons — they show a small amount of footage with Boca Juniors supporters, which seems like it could reasonably be its own documentary, and leaves you wanting to see more. Beyond that, this is intriguing because Latin American sports documentary content subtitled for an English-speaking audience is limited, and this is the coaching staff now in charge of the LA Galaxy.

This doc is fairly short, and the stuff with Carlos Tevez was pretty good — I understood his charisma for the first time in his career — but they seemed to struggle mightily to explain why we should care about the cross-section of players profiled. This guy is middle class, here’s his life, and then this one lives in the youth dorm, got that? The tone is pretty bland, honestly, and I think the crew lean into the parts that make it more boring and shy away from some of the storylines that might have taken off.

Should you watch it? Again, I did, and I got through it, but I think the fan stuff and the Tevez storylines were the clear highlights. You get to see behind the scenes of a global power that you don’t normally get this footage of, but honestly the most memorable part beyond what I mentioned was a scene asking if players preferred coffee or maté, and that wasn’t that exciting.

First Team: Juventus (Netflix)

Come for the scenes of Claudio Marchisio making espresso in his beautifully appointed Turin kitchen, stay for the bubbling goalkeeper “drama,” I guess? Again, if you’re stuck at home and you want to “see the world” from your couch, checking out Northern Italy and some of the glamour of Juventus isn’t the worst way to spend your time.

But this two-part series makes a huge gamble Juve will win the Champions League, and they don’t. And unlike the entertaining crash and burns of Sunderland or Leeds United, the storytelling is flat — “Can they win that elusive Champions League?” “No.” “Eh, well, they smashed Serie A again.” It’s honestly not that entertaining.

Should you watch it? If you’re a Serie A fan, either for or against Juventus, this is probably a much more fascinating watch. For neutrals? Meh. My significant other, not a soccer fan, started watching with me and fell asleep in the second hour, never to check in again. I get it.

Inside Borussia Dortmund (Amazon Prime)

I don’t have any European club allegiances, but if I did I would think hard about Borussia Dortmund, one of the most interesting clubs in the world, with a great identity, a generally very good team with exciting players, and lots of drama around it.

That said, I started watching this series and could not make it through the first 15 minutes. The series opens with people around the club talking about the bus bombing before a Champions League game, a moment certain to make for a great storytelling hook...and they drained all the drama out of it. Everyone on the talking head spots sounds like they are bored. Maybe I was having an off day, but I watched those Boca and Juve docs that were middling at best all the way through, and what I saw of the Dortmund one was worst of all: Just really boring.

Should you watch it? Like I said, I couldn’t do it so I’d probably say this is for diehard Dortmund fans only.

Got a recommendation? Something I missed? Let’s chat about it in the comments below.