If you subscribe to ESPN+ to watch MLS games, good news! You also have access to a ton of original ESPN programming, including the critically-acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series. The films range from roughly half-hour to feature length and run the gamut of sports, but here, we’re going to focus on some of the offerings that deal with soccer. Below are three longer docs and four short ones to dig into while you’re staying safe and staying home.
George Best: All By Himself
The story of George Best — an explosive young soccer talent from Northern Ireland who brought glory to Manchester United in the 1960s before flaming out equally spectacularly — makes for compelling viewing. Best was the first “pop star” of soccer, coming of age alongside the Fab Five in swinging London and winning the European Cup Final in 1968 over Benfica and Eusebio at Wembley Stadium. The win was huge for the Red Devils following the air crash that had claimed the lives of eight players 10 years previously. Unequipped for the fame and all that came with it, Best descended into alcoholism, eventually attempting a number of comebacks, including with the Los Angeles Aztecs of the fledgling NASL. Closer to a biopic than documentary, the movie nevertheless touches on things beyond Best’s ultimately tragic tale, most significantly its evocation of what sudden fame meant in English soccer before it was replete with stars.
The Two Escobars
The most compelling of all the soccer documentaries on offer from ESPN, The Two Escobars takes us through the intertwining fates of Colombian soccer player Andrés Escobar and Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar in the 1990s. Throughout, filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist take us on a dizzying tour of the highs and lows of corruption and excess in the sport in Colombia at the time. Pablo Escobar bought a soccer club mostly to launder money, but he also invested in the game and in his community. When Colombia qualifies for the World Cup — supported by drug money — the stakes get higher for all the players. Against the U.S., Andrés Escobar nets an own goal and he ends up paying for it with his life after Colombia is eliminated from the tournament. Many of the documentaries here are great for soccer and sports fans, but The Two Escobars is recommended for just about anyone, tying together as it does multiple elements of history, crime, corruption, community, national pride and soccer into one unbelievable story.
An engrossing if grim watch, Hillsborough tells the story of the disaster at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield during the FA Cup Semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989. An inexperienced police commander was ill-equipped to deal with the logistics of an aging stadium, leading to overflowing crowds of Liverpool supporters in two standing-room pens. A further decision to relieve a crush of fans outside the stadium by opening an extra gate exacerbated the situation, eventually leading to the deaths of 96 people. Proceed with care into watching this one during this time of heightened stress, but as the movie unfolds and examines the police and government cover-up of incompetence and the affected families’ search for justice, it becomes a story about perseverance and hope.
Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy
o If you’ve watched your share of the World Cup but know nothing about the original trophy itself, Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy is a diverting dive into history. The trophy was designed by sculptor Abel Lafleur for the first World Cup in 1930 and from then passed between countries every four years until a country won five total World Cups, at which time the Jules Rimet trophy would stay with them and a new one would be crafted. All the twists and turns it went through are too good to spoil here, although it’s safe to say the oddest might be when it was stolen in 1966 and turned up seven days later when a dog named Pickles found it under a hedge in South London.
In the early ‘90s, it seemed as if the conflict in Ireland might have a path towards peace, and it coincided with the Republic of Ireland’s rise on the international soccer stage. In a tense match between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the former secured an essential draw on a late goal to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. They opened the group stage against one of the tournament’s favorites in Italy but pulled off a massive 1-0 upset at the Meadowlands in the U.S. But across the world, gunmen walked into the tiny Heights Bar in Loughinisland with assault rifles and killed six while wounding five. The perpetrators of the massacre were never caught and Ireland didn’t win another game in the World Cup. The documentary is a good look into the unrest that eventually led to a landmark ceasefire in August of 1994.
The Opposition frames the story of civil unrest in Chile in the 1970s through the lens of the national team. Two of the team’s stars, Carlos Caszely and Leonardo Veliz, were vocal supporters of socialist candidate Salvador Allende, and when Allende won election in 1970, they were thrilled. But as the team prepped for the 1974 World Cup, Allende’s government fell in a U.S.-backed military coup to General Augusto Pinochet. Dissidents were rounded up and imprisoned in the National Stadium, leading to a standoff with the USSR over the second leg of a series Chile needed to win to qualify for the World Cup. While many of the 30 for 30 documentaries lean into the power of sports, this one shows just how powerless they can be when running up against overwhelming force.
The Myth of Garrincha
This short documentary comes off a bit like George Best’s story in miniature. Mané Garrincha led Brazil to glory in back-to-back World Cups in 1958 and 1962, becoming a national legend even though he grew up poor, never learned to read, and was born with one leg shorter than the other and a right knee that bent inward instead of outward. In 1962, with Pelé injured, he won the Golden Boot, Golden Ball and the World Cup, becoming the first player to do so. Off the field, Garrincha’s personal life was marred by alcoholism, recklessness behind the wheel and his decision to leave his wife, Dona Nair, and daughters for singer Elza Soares. The doc is a good introduction to a legendary player many U.S. fans might still not be familiar with.