Sport naturally lends itself to great documentaries with archive footage able to tell a story more viscerally than a book can.
Below are lists of my favourite sports documentaries – a list I plan to add to over time. Where possible I’ve provided links to any versions that are accessible online.
Football / Soccer documentaries
- Diego Maradona (2019). A wonderful film from the team behind Senna. An exploration of the two sides of the greatest footballer of all time – Diego the man, and Maradona the myth. Focuses on his time in Napoli and the two World Cups he dominated. Just superb.
- Sunderland Till I Die (2018). A behind-the-scenes documentary series on Netflix chronicling Sunderland’s ill-fated season in the Championship in 2017/2018. A really intimate look at a struggling club that means a huge amount to its supporters and its community. Well worth checking out but grim viewing at times.
- Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006). A brilliant documentary on the rise and fall of the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League. Pele and Beckenbauer in the one team – who could ask for more. Also an accompanying book which is class and well overdue a re-read.
- When We Were Kings (1996). Oscar winning documentary film about the”Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The film captures the atmosphere of 1974 Zaire and the circus that followed Ali everywhere. Will leave you chanting Ali Bomaye! Ali Bomaye! for days! A brilliant film.
- Senna (2010). Focusing on the life and death of the legendary Brazilian Formula 1 driver Aryton Senna, this was a difficult watch for me as I vividly remember Senna’s death in my early years of watching sport. It is an absolutely brilliant film that stirs up an awful lot of emotion. It centres around Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost and its one flaw is that it creates a bit too much of a ‘good vs. evil’ feel about the rivalry. The film never shows its talking heads and often lets the footage speak for itself in a way that works extremely well. Directed by Asif Kapadia who also made the haunting documentary Amy.
- O.J.: Made in America (ESPN). This 5 part, 7+ hour documentary won the Oscar for best documentary film – an accolade that was fully deserved. I watched it, slightly skeptical that a 7+ hour film was needed to tell a story that has been told multiple times before. But I was wrong. Made in America chronicles O.J Simpson’s life before, during and after his infamous murder trial. I particularly enjoyed the early episodes about O.J.’s career – the details of which are definitely less well known by non-US audiences. A brilliant film
- This was the XFL (2017, ESPN 30 for 30). Hearing recently about plans to bring back the XFL in 2020, I realised I had no idea why exactly it failed first time round. The XFL was the brainchild of WWF owner Vince McMahon and he was partnered by Dick Ebersol, the legendary head of NBC Sports. This documentary is directed by Dick’s son Charlie and paints a picture of a league where the pre-season marketing worked a treat but not enough time was given to prepare the actual football teams. A clear case of over-promising and under-delivering. Given the focus on the traumatic effects of violence in the NFL, a more violent football league seems like an idea for a bygone era and the new XFL is going to have to market itself very differently. Interesting doc, well worth checking out. (Coincidentally, the director of this doc, Charlie Ebersol, has set up the Alliance of American Football, a new League that kicks of in Feb 2019!
- You Don’t Know Bo: The Legend of Bo Jackson (2012, ESPN 30 for 30). The story of one of the most athletically gifted sportsmen of all times. Bo Jackson won the Heisman trophy and played in both the NFL and MLB. He remains the only player to play in the All-Star game in both football and baseball. Much like John Elway almost did, he played baseball largely because he didn’t want to play for the team who drafted him in the NFL. Sadly injury cut short his career but he managed to comeback and play again – while never regaining his former glory. A great story – and I’m dying to track down a copy of Bo’s autobiography.
- Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL (2009, ESPN 30 for 30). One of the original 30 for 30 documentaries, this film first introduced me to the USFL. Re-watching it now with Trump as President it takes on a whole new symbolism. Very interesting and well made, and a great companion piece to watch after reading the excellent ‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL’ by Jeff Pearlman (2018)
- Free Spirits (2013, ESPN 30 for 30). Having read a great book on the ABA –‘Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association’ by Terry Pluto (1990) – I re-watched one of my favourite 30 for 30’s – “Free Spirits”. It tells the colorful story of the Spirits of St. Louis — a team of misfits who entertained as much off the court as on it. The Spirits are now best remembered for the insane deal their owners managed to get as compensation for not being absorbed into the NBA when the leagues merged. A fun and enjoyable documentary and a great companion piece to Loose Balls.
Radio / Podcast Documentaries
The growth in podcasts over recent years has led to a proliferation in the amount of sports stories being told. I’ve come accross some great radio sports documentaries including these:
- Cigarettes and Samba – RTE Radio documentary on Ireland’s ill-fated soccer tour of South America in 1982. Fascinating on the politics of the Falklands War for Ireland, the farce that was/is the Football Association of Ireland and the joy of representing your country for the first time. Podcast available on the RTE website.
- ESPN 30 for 30 Podcasts. Not content with creating the best sports documentary series imaginable, ESPN also have 4 seasons of excellent sports doc podcasts under the 30 for 30 brand. Season 3 was a connected season focusing on the founder of Bikram yoga. It was interesting but I prefer the standalone episodes. All available online for free and well worth checking out. The highlights for me are:
- The Fighter Inside (Season 1, ep 5)
- No Rules: The Birth of UFC (Season 2, ep 2)
- Juiced (Season 4, episode 1)
- The Loophole (Season 4, episode 4)
Radio docs I plan to check out soon
- The Record fakers – BBC Radio doc on East German doping
- Chasin’ Roe – RTE documentary about an Irish driver who should have made it to F1