Looking For Eric
"Looking For Eric" (2009)
All team loyalties aside, one of, if not the most gifted and charismatic players of all time, was volatile French genius Eric Cantona, a sensation for Manchester United in the 1990s, before he disgraced himself by attacking a rival fan at game in 1995. Banned for eight months and retiring two years later, Cantona went into acting, with a small role in Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth," and several others back home in France. And ten years later, the two sides of his life came into perfect harmony with Ken Loach's wonderful "Looking For Eric," a kitchen sink fantasy in which Cantona plays himself (he also co-produced the movie). The film stars character actor (and former bassist for The Fall) Steve Evets as Eric Bishop, a postman and lifelong Man U fan, with an estranged relationship to his ex-wife (Stephanie Bishop), a stepson (Gerard Kearns) getting involved in gang culture, and a generally crumbling life that's left him on the brink of suicide. But one day, a weed smoking session sees him greeted by the vision of his namesake and hero Eric Cantona, who becomes a sort of guardian angel and advisor, giving Bishop the confidence to get his life together. Screenwriter Paul Laverty (a serious United fan, and it shows) plays on Cantona's quirky, philosophical persona, and his reputation as a "flawed genius," as Evets puts it at one point, making him a charming companion to the hero, and their discussions of the Beautiful Game are among the best in cinema—this scene in particular. But it's Evets who's the stand out—a deeply warm, good-hearted man who's finally trying to get his shit together and be a better person. The gangster subplot leads the film astray, and stops it from being among Loach's very best, but it's still one of his sweetest and most accessible films, and was a deserving box office hit on release.

Maradona By Kusturica
"Maradona by Kusturica" (2008)
For ardent fans of soccer, Argentine futbol player Diego Maradona was/is one of the most colorful characters in the sport, and arguably, along with Pele, considered one of the greatest players to ever step foot on a soccer pitch. A huge, dominating force in global soccer, Maradona played in four FIFA World Cup tournaments, led Argentina to a victory in 1986 and almost another one in 1990 (they lost 1-0 to Germany in the final match). But towards the end of his career, the outspoken Maradona became more infamous for his off-field antics, testing positive for cocaine in 1991, and sent home from the 1994 World Cup after failing an ephedrine test. It’s rich material for a documentary, and so in 2008, filmmaker Emir Kusturica took on the player in "Maradona by Kusturica," which played at the Cannes Film Festival out of competition in 2008 but never received a North American theatrical release (and arrived quietly on DVD in 2011). Unfortunately, it’s nothing if not a missed opportunity. Granted tremendous access with the star, the resulting effort is an absolutely bizarre mix of Maradona apology that fails to ask any hard questions, lots of Kusturica himself for some reason, clips from the director's films and an endless repeat of Maradona’s goals soundtracked to Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” in some kind of limp political statement. This is hardly a definite portrait of the sport’s most controversial names, but instead a document of a director hanging out with a celebrity and writing a half-hearted mash note. It’s not a surprise it barely got a release before limping to DVD.

Once In A Lifetime
“Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos” (2006)
Soccer/Futbol is long ridiculed by (mainly U.S.) sports writers, perhaps because it’s the biggest sport in the world and yet has failed time and time again to break in the U.S., despite many predictions over the years that when it did finally take, it would become America’s favorite new pastime. That obviously never happened. But the closest soccer did come to being a national phenomenon—at least from a publicity perspective—was in the mid-'70s with the New York Cosmos. An improbable story, like all good documentaries, 'Once In a Lifetime' charts the rise and fall of the team against the backdrop of the colorful 1970s in New York. A fascinating and curious tale, the path to soccer becoming a success begins with unlikely players. Warner Communications chief Steve Ross is friends with with the late Turkish American musician and businessman Ahmet Ertegun who started Atlantic Records (owned by WB). Ertergun wants to leave Atlantic, but Ross begs him to stay, telling him he’ll do whatever he wants to keep him happy. Well, Ertegun and his brother Nesuhi, want a soccer team. The empire-building Ross, an energetic and charismatic man, soon gets hooked, finds investors and a real team is born. But a team isn’t enough for the competitive and animated Ross. Brazilian forward Pelé is hired for $4.5 million making him the highest paid athlete in the world. The hiring of Pelé (he’s coaxed out of retirement at 34, thanks in part to Henry Kissinger) is massive sports news and it immediately rockets up attendance. Soon famously brusque Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia and the West German sweeper Franz Beckenbauer are hired and the Cosmos have an international team of talent that attracts stars like Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali and Robert Redford to games, and results in endless nights hanging out at Studio 54 and New York’s swankiest disco clubs. Soccer mania is finally sweeping the nation. Narrated by Matt Dillon and featuring a tasteful collection of 1970s funk, disco and soul (Parliament, The Commodores, Dinah Washington, James Brown, etc.), the story of the scrappy New York Cosmos, makes for an entertaining and wholly absorbing documentary that is a must-see for all hardcore soccer fans (who have probably seen it by now).

Rudo Y Cursi
“Rudo Y Cursi” (2008)
Rudo y Cursi” is the perfect soccer movie for anyone who has no actual interest in soccer because, even though it follows the rise and perilous fall of two brothers who go from kids kicking around a half-inflated ball in a dusty dirt lot to professional superstardom (and back again), it never features any actual soccer. It’s kind of amazing. Directed by Carlos Cuarón (Alfonso Cuarón’s brother) and one of the few films actually produced by the “Three Amigos” (Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro), the movie reunites “Y Tu Mamá También” confederates Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as two brothers who are each drafted by major soccer teams and whose relationship, predictably, deteriorates as a result. Gorgeously shot and possessing an amiable, off-kilter charm, “Rudo y Cursi” is also genuinely funny, oftentimes gently poking fun at the brothers’ dirtpoor upbringing and their incompatibility with fame and money. Bernal and Luna are, of course, terrific, and even though it was a huge hit overseas (eventually becoming the sixth highest grossing Mexican film of all time), it made little impact here. At least you couldn’t blame the overabundance of soccer footage this time. Weird side note: one of the funnier subplots in “Rudo y Cursi” involves Bernal having a career as an incredibly cheesy pop star, complete with an amazing music video where he bounces a soccer ball on his head. Somehow, this footage (from the music video), wound up in Amy Heckerling’s recent horror comedy “Vamps” as its own bizarre subplot (Sigourney Weaver wanted to travel to Spain to have sex with him or something). So the legend of “Rudo y Cursi” lives on. Sort of.