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The 10 best sports documentaries ever made

We're in a golden age of sports docs, but there's some good old ones too. Man City fans shouldn't get their hopes up.

10. Fire in Babylon

The film is a welcome chance to luxuriate in archive footage of the great West Indian cricket team of the 1970s and early 80s. Viv, Roberts, Holding, Lloyd, Croft: they’re all there in their fabulous pomp, scaring the shit out of everyone who stood in their way. Much of the film's power comes from the knowledge of what comes next: the slow, depressing decline of Caribbean cricket. The other point is economic: look at the crowds at The Oval in 1976 and compare them to today. Two words: ticket prices. Great soundtrack though.

“The more you play overseas, and the more you interact with the Caribbean people overseas, you realise the implications of what you are doing,” said Michael Holding. “And when you do well, they feel so proud. They can walk the streets of whatever country they are in, proud to be confidently West Indian, because they are associated with success."

9. Hoop Dreams

“A film like "Hoop Dreams" is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and make us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” That’s what Roger Elbert said about it. And that’s probably ok for us. 

8. 16 Days of Glory

It’s 1984 and LA is arguably the most important Games of the last century. Fresh from the Moscow boycott, the IOC needed a hit. The film by Bud Greenspan looks beautiful, with the stories supplied by Carl Lewis, Daley Thompson, Zola Budd among a host of others. 

7. Living With The Lions

The film that made John Bentley a star. The behind the scenes story of the British and Irish Lions 1997 rugby tour of South Africa has been copied many times but never bettered. It has an unvarnished quality that’s a world away from more recent, sanitised attempts to take viewers inside the dressing room. 

6. G’ole

A personal favourite of “Facebook’s Peter Hutton” as he’s now referred to, who has spent a lifetime buying and selling sports docs. This is the story of the 1982 Fifa World Cup in Spain, with Sean Connery on the voice over, in the style of Larry Olivier doing The World At War, only without the Panzers stuck in the snow on the Eastern front. Soundtrack by Rick Wakeman, but it's still good.

This is how Football and Music website describes it:

"But despite its many quirks,”G’Ole!” is still a fantastic piece of work. Mainly because it features so much incredible footage. The 1982 World Cup was a vintage competition, containing perhaps the greatest game in the competition’s history – Brazil vs Italy. Spain, at that time still something of a post-Franco backwater, has always been a beautiful, cinematic location, and Clegg and his team shoot and edit the whole thing so that it is all atmospheric and visually arresting…”

5. The Four Year Plan

The best, most authentic of the ‘fly on the wall at a football club’ genre, making All or Nothing Man City or Sunderland Till I Die look like branded content. Mat Hodgson was given access to the QPR boardroom by Bernie Ecclestone and Flávio Briatore, after the pair took over the west London club in November 2007. The best bit is a row about the transfer of Dexter Blackstock to Notts Forest, the club’s leading scorer at this point. The contempt between the board the managers (plural) is never far from the surface, and the film should be shown to MBA students seeking insight into how owners view the management class. ‘If there was an idiot, we found him,’ says board director Alejandro Agag. Side note: Eoin Connolly claims there's a framed cover of SportsPro on the wall in one scene (Ed: requires verification). 

4. Diego Maradona

The third of Asif Kapadia’s trilogy of documentaries “about child geniuses and fame” that runs from Senna and Amy through to this snapshot of Maradona’s life in Naples following his transfer from Barcelona in the summer of 1984. The player is described by one interviewee as a ‘rebel, cheat, hustler and god’, and when asked about Amy Winehouse, Kapadia’s response could easily apply also to the life of the Argentinian great: 

‘That film became about the people around her, but also about us – the audience, the fans. The camera was turned around onto us, and us realising that we are in the story. We do seem to enjoy it when famous people are having a hard time because we judge them for the money they make and we get a perverse joy out of watching someone falling apart.’

3. When We Were Kings

The Ali - Foreman Rumble in the Jungle is the setting, but this is not really about boxing, it’s about race, politics and celebrity. The sheer beauty and charisma of Ali is sometimes hard to look at, as are the hangers on who seek to exploit it.

2. Senna

When people say this is a ‘golden age of the sports documentary’, they’re usually referring to this film, again by Asif Kapadia, who also made Diego Maradona above. Given how much race action footage there is, it might seem strange that the scene that stays with you is a row at the pre-race meeting between the drivers and FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre. This is the stuff you never see, the realpolitik of the sport revealed, which sets up the terrible moments leading to Senna’s death. You forget he was only 34.

1. An Impossible Job

No point analysing it. Just watch it. 

It’s 1992 and Graham Taylor is England manager. For reasons that nobody can quite recall, Phil Neal and Laurie McMenemy are also there. People go on about Harold Pinter but his dialogue doesn’t touch this for pathos: 

‘Hit Les’...‘Go Les’...‘Hit Les over the top’...‘Fuckin ell’...'Les, you tell em'...‘They can't hear you Les, you have to tell em'.

And then of course there's:

'Can we not knock it?’...’Can we not fucking knock it?’

Nobody calls the film by it’s original title. It’s always ‘Do I Not Like That’, which Taylor utters, first quietly, then like a wounded animal as he watches from the dugout as Des Walker’s pass to John Barnes goes directly to a Polish midfielder, and from there over Chris Woods in to England’s net.

'Do I Not Like That' wrote Adam Hurrey (@FootballCliches) is now part of football folklore: “If the entire documentary was Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, this is surely its Wonderwall”

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