5 compelling sports documentaries even non-fans will love
The best sports documentaries tend to share one thing in common: they can be enjoyed by viewers who aren’t really sports fans at all. Sure, you can take something like Fifteen Minutes That Shook the World, which covers Liverpool FC’s 2005 Champions League win, known as The Miracle of Istanbul. It’s a fine watch, but it won’t appeal to those who aren’t fans of soccer, or Liverpool for that matter.
A great sports documentary goes beyond the games, winning and losing, and looks instead at the human stories behind the events. Universal themes that can be lifted from a soccer or baseball game, and then portrayed as relatable drama – that’s what makes for captivating cinema, regardless of the subject matter.
Below we are going to pick out five of the most compelling sports documentaries that we believe can be watched by people who normally give sports a miss. For clarity, we are aiming to look at some underrated content here, so we will bypass current popular shows like Sunderland Till I Die and The Last Dance. But these five gems are worth checking out for something different:
Beyond the Mat (2000)
“What sort of human being bashes another man’s skull into a ring post for a living?” That’s the opening question from Barry W. Blaustein’s acclaimed documentary on pro wrestling. Blaustein looks at the people who make the business tick, from WWE supremo Vince McMahon to down-on-his-luck, meth-addicted Jake “The Snake” Roberts. This is certainly no advert for wrestling, nor is it for the faint-hearted.
Instead, it holds a mirror up to it and shows the world what pro wrestling really is. You’ll be shocked by the lengths the wrestlers go to entertain, and surprised that these cartoonish strongmen are also quite gentle. After watching, you might not love pro wrestling, but you will certainly have more respect for those who do.
Four Days in October (2010)
One of the best of the 30 for 30 films produced by ESPN, Four Days in October tells the story of how the Boston Red Sox overcame a 3-0 series deficit to defeat the New York Yankees and, eventually, win the 2004 World Series. As far as sporting comeback stories go, that might seem fairly run-of-the-mill. But this was much more than that.
Eighty-six years of the “Curse of the Bambino” had filtered into the consciousness of the Red Sox team, fans and the city of Boston. The documentary is a masterpiece of drama and tension, presented through the eyes of the players, media and fans. Indeed, even when knowing the result, Gary Waksman’s fine directing of Four Days in October makes you unsure of whether the Sox can pull it off.
If you are not a Bostonian, it might be difficult now to root for the Red Sox given their unequalled success since 2004. But this team, known as “The Idiots” was endearing and gutsy. Moreover, you end up cheering on an entire city as it strives to no longer be known as the underdog.
Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job (1994)
You can’t help but feel that Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001), a cracking movie often ranked as one of the best sports comedy films, took a little inspiration from Graham Taylor’s time as England coach. In An Impossible Job, a documentary produced by Channel 4’s Cutting Edge, camera crews follow Taylor and his England team for 18 months as they toil through qualification for World Cup 1994.
It is – unintentionally – a “comic masterpiece” (the words of The Guardian) – but also tragic and touching. At its heart is Taylor, a man perhaps unfairly portrayed as being clueless. However, as we have seen with almost every England manager since then, it is an impossible job.
Murderball provides evidence that we do not need mainstream sports to tell compelling stories about what it takes to overcome obstacles. Like all the documentaries on this list, Murderball – an intriguing tale of the world of wheelchair rugby – puts the human story to the forefront of the film.
It looks at the rivalry between the U.S and Canadian wheelchair rugby teams in the lead up to the 2004 Paralympics, providing a fascinating insight on the determination it takes to make it to that level. The individual stories of the players overcoming their injuries – or striving to overcome them – are the core of this film, which won the award for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
Diego Maradona (2019)
Is Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Argentina’s most famous son underrated? Perhaps not. However, there is a feeling among some that it should be given more recognition. Kapadia’s masterstroke was not to do a career biopic, but to instead focus on the player’s transfer to Napoli.
Like Four Days in October above, the film ends up capturing the zeitgeist of the city and the place of its most important sports team within it. Maradona is, however, the undoubted star of the show, his enigmatic personality shining through as much as his skills on the pitch. It’s an utterly mesmerizing watch, but don’t expect a happy ending.