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This is how it works: As soon as the World Cup opens, about half the world – a lot of people – pays attention, and when the World Cup final kicks off a month later, the whole world is watching.
If you have not been captivated yet by the World Cup and the Canadian men’s team, you are beyond eccentric. There’s as much controversy as elation. Maybe you need a primer, or some coaching. Fine. There’s a lot to learn from TV. There are numerous dramas, documentaries and more. Mind you, there’s a lack of material about women’s soccer, although the material does exist. (You can find the movie Bend It Like Beckham on Disney+.)
You should watch Heart of Goal: The Rise of Canadian Soccer (Sunday, TLN, 3:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 3, 9 p.m., and note that TLN is on free preview right now), about both the men’s and women’s game here. It’s a timely feature documentary but be aware that yours truly is featured in it. Herewith, a list of soccer-related content to absorb and enjoy.
FIFA Uncovered (streams on Netflix) is a puzzle solved. Wonder why this World Cup is in the tiny desert state of Qatar? There are answers here: money, political influence, gift-giving and outright corruption. The four-part documentary is part history-lesson about FIFA evolving from a sporting body to one of the more powerful and revenue-generating outfits on the planet. It has the bizarre figure of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter trying to explain the inexplicable.
Ted Lasso (streams on Apple TV+) became a phenomenon in the pandemic period. Turns out people craved kindness, optimism and generosity of spirit. They found it in a series about a soccer club and its manager. Why? Because that’s what soccer is, in its ideals, away from the machinations of FIFA and big money.
The English Game, Netflix (2020) chronicles one year in the life of Darwen FC, a real club, anchored in the cotton mills of Lancashire, England in the 1870s. It’s a drama, sometimes cliché-heavy but entertaining, about how the game thrived, especially in working-class areas where teams of men – and women – from factories and mills used it as recreation and a community-building outlet. But who controlled its evolution? The working class or the toffs from private schools? Coming from the creator of Downton Abbey, it’s a charming, uncomplicated distraction.
21 Thunder (streams on Netflix and CBC Gem) is Canadian and good, about young players on the cusp of being full-time professionals and potential legends at a professional Montreal club. It’s an excellent melodrama that reaches into the lavishly exotic and coarse world of club soccer and pulls out stories and characters that are believable and compelling. Goals, ego, sex and resentments. One season of eight episodes.
Apache: The Life of Carlos Tevez (streams on Netflix) is bonkers but strangely believable drama. Based on the early life of Tevez, a legend for Argentina and numerous clubs, its melodrama is anchored in fact – the hero (Balthazar Murillo) using soccer to escape from the chaotic, violent slums of Buenos Aires.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die (streams on Netflix) is one of the rare inside-soccer docuseries that has genuine insight and staying power. When the makers decided to document Sunderland, they didn’t know what a roller coaster the team would endure. Apart from the game, it’s about community and the persistence of local supporters. The All or Nothing franchise (streams on Amazon Prime Video) has taken a similar approach to several clubs, but often ends up all-glory and no-grit or genuine elucidation. An exception is All or Nothing: Arsenal, which captures a genuinely fraught season for the Premier League club.
In that context also note, Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League (streams on Amazon Prime Video) is a first-rate, four-part series on the beginning and evolution of the Premier League in England. It emphasizes that most revolutions in art or sport begin because economics and technology meet at the right moment. In the 1980s, as it is accurately told here, English soccer was in a mess. The TV changed everything.
Diego Maradona (streams on Crave) resonates loudly, given that Argentina is, so far, a favourite to win this World Cup. A speedy, heady account of Maradona’s best years as a player – his time playing for Napoli in Italy’s Serie A, and it’s all here: the great games, goals and great scandals.
United (streams on Acorn TV) is a gem of a BBC TV film from 2011. It’s also about soccer, but there isn’t a ton of games in it. Written by Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, it has one of David Tennant’s best performances. He plays Jimmy Murphy, who was the coach of Manchester United in the period of the Munich Air Disaster – in February, 1958, a plane carrying the team crashed while trying to take off at Munich airport, and many of the young players died.
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