ESPN’s 30 for 30 presents The Two Escobars filmed by Michael and Jeff Zimbalist.

With my vuvuzela still stuck at the bottom of a closet, I have decided to support my fellow non-fiction-loving fans who happen to be World Cup-obsessed and can’t get enough soccer despite the constant flow of great games being played in Brazil right now, by taking a look at what soccer documentaries are out there that are worth seeing.

I’m happy to report that here are some, although there is no must-see soccer doc, as there is for basketball (Hoop Dreams), baseball (Ken Burns’ Baseball series) or boxing (When We Were Kings) and even car racing (Senna).

Still, if you just can’t get enough of the beautiful game, and you’re interested in personal hagiography, there’s a lot out there for you, from
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait to Maradona: The Hand of God to
David Beckham: Life of an Icon and so on and so on.

And there are other more interesting approaches, such as Kicking It, a 2008 film about homeless people who take part in a Homeless World Cup soccer match, which premiered at Sundance. There’s also Pelada, in which two former college players travel the word visiting 25 countries and kick the ball around with people creating a multicultural portrait of the game. And there’s the more recent Next Goal Wins, about the dreadful American Samoa team (they once lost a game 31-0) that looks to finally win a game.

For my money, you can’t go wrong by turning to the great “30 for 30” sport doc series on ESPN, which has a number of soccer-themed documentaries. They like to use soccer as way of looking at human issues around the game, such as Hillsborough, about the tragedy in which 96 people in the crowd died in a stampede at a soccer match in England.

But if you are going to have to choose one documentary to watch in between all the DVR’d World Cup action, I’d recommend Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos or The Two Escobars, a “30 for 30” documentary that first aired on ESPN in 2010.

Once in a Lifetime creates a fun historical portrait of the relationship between the United States and the game. It shows the best and worst of American soccer, and the money that was behind its initial foray into the states. Narrated by Matt Dillon, the doc has a rah-rah, feel-good vibe that never lets up. This isn’t hard hitting or terribly deep stuff. What it is is enjoyable, and comprehensive. It tells of how Pelé came to the Cosmos, and how entertainment executives tried to launch the sport. And then, why it died. No surprises here — Televisions weren’t turned on. That history provides an interesting backdrop to the interest in the game we’re seeing today.

A better, more thrilling film is The Two Escobars, about Colombia’s Andrés and Pablo Escobar. One a soccer player, the other an infamous drug lord. The two were not related, but the doc ties their worlds together to create an incredible portrait of sports, corruption and third-world politics. (Again, interesting to think about now, in relationship to Brazil and FIFA.)

What Two Escobars also has is tragedy — both on the field and off, when Andrés scores a goal against his own team in one of the most infamous acts in sports. Whether his subsequent murder, just weeks later, was connected to the “own goal” has never been confirmed, but it puts a point on an incredible story.

Not insignificantly, there’s also some great soccer playing shown in Two Escobars, so it gets my vote for best soccer doc.

But I’m still ready for a truly great soccer doc to be made. Who knows, maybe that’s happening right now. I just got wind that a couple Emerson grads are in Brazil documenting these games. Check them out here

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen