Among 2023’s most surprising storylines was that of Wrexham, the lower-tier Welsh club whose fortunes under celebrity American ownership have been chronicled in the series “Welcome to Wrexham.” Though the show was initially released in 2022, its popularity grew exponentially in this subsequent year. The result? An heretofore unseen number of real-life marketing and tour opportunities for the lower-division club that might never have existed before.
One can read the rise of Wrexham as one of the more extreme examples of the impact of a football documentary. Executed well, these works don’t just offer behind-the-scenes looks at teams and players or reveal stories we hadn’t seen before – they give you an entirely new avenue of connection to the game we all know and love.
So with that in mind, here are 11 suggestions from our global football staff on good things to watch, emphasizing new(ish) works or those that resonate especially well at the tail end of 2023.
Bear in mind that these are recommendations, not a best-of list. By all means, drop your favorites in the comments.
Super League: The War for Football
How to watch: Apple TV
In our post-“The Last Dance” society, there are a few hallmarks that have become essential to a good sports documentary — and this four-part Apple TV docuseries checks every box. Transposing very relatable drama onto the unrelatable greats of sport? Check – You see Juventus chair Andrea Agnelli navigating behind longtime friend and UEFA head honcho Aleksander Čeferin’s back. Memorable talking head segments from the main people involved? Yep – Along with those two, Florentino Pérez and Nasser Al-Khelaifi make star turns as rich football owners-turned-supporting actors. A meticulously curated soundtrack? Indeed – Few documentaries can match one specific Talking Heads cue at a crucial moment.
History is told by the victors, and this documentary certainly skews toward the anti-Super League camp headed by Čeferin and the romantic idealists around soccer. As the sport continues to launch new competitions and further fracture the schedule of events, it’s important context about one of the most insane stretches the club side of the sport has seen in recent memory. It’s also relevant to current events in the U.S. and in Europe, as MLS tries to leave behind the century-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and talk of a Super League was revived somewhat after a European court decision. – Jeff Rueter
Is the Super League back? What a landmark European court ruling does and doesn’t mean
One Team, One Dream: This is Chelsea
How to watch: DAZN via YouTube
I don’t want you to feel like I’m assigning you homework over the Christmas break, but USWNT fans who might not know the incoming head coach Emma Hayes should queue up DAZN’s six-part docu-series on Hayes’s leadership at Chelsea, focused specifically on 2019 to 2021. While it may not be precisely up-to-date, it’s a fascinating look behind the curtain with a ton of insight into how Hayes leads her club team.
Knowing what we know now about how successful Sam Kerr has been with Chelsea, it’s also somewhat hilarious to revisit her signing and entrance into the team. But far more revealing is how a club team adapts to a superstar signing and the tensions it can create amongst the original roster. (One charming moment: Hayes asking Kerr in her first team meeting if she’s willing to dog-sit for everyone else on the team.)
I won’t (retroactively) spoil the conclusion of the documentary and the result of the 2021 UEFA Women’s Champion League final, but in a way, the arc of this series reminds me a bit of “Under Pressure,” the USWNT doc on Netflix. (Okay, maybe that just spoiled it, sorry.) The day-to-day environment of Chelsea isn’t exactly the same as that of the USWNT Hayes will enter next May, but I can’t imagine her fundamental approach to managing players will be very different.
Oh, and one other reason why it won’t feel like homework? Just how much use DAZN makes of the bleep button. – Meg Linehan
How the USWNT lured Emma Hayes away from Chelsea: Inside the near $2 million deal
Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job
How to watch: YouTube
There will never be another documentary like this. Forget the over-sanitized nonsense that they sell you as ‘warts and all’ these days. This was nothing but warts. No one had editorial control over this show except the editors, which is exactly as it should be. England manager Graham Taylor, a good man in an increasingly bad situation, is slowly beaten down by the press, the fans and his own team’s fitful efforts to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
It’s a difficult watch at times, Taylor is clearly suffering, but his dignity, kindness and class shines through. It’s a masterpiece, a harrowing time capsule of the game before all the money arrived and if you don’t choke up with tears during Taylor’s speech before the crucial clash with the Netherlands, then I don’t even want to know you. – Iain Macintosh
Sir Elton John and Watford, a ‘rock ‘n’ roll chairman’ in platform heels
Coleen Rooney: The Real Wagatha Story
How to watch: Hulu (US), Disney+ (UK)
This documentary delivers a three-episode stare into a hardy believable – and perhaps to some, slightly trivial – moment in British popular culture. It’s………. Coleen Rooney, wife of former England and Manchester United footballer Wayne Rooney, who guides us through the story of how she became an iconic internet detective nicknamed “Wagatha Christie.”
Coleen has watched her life play out in the press since her days as a schoolgirl in Croxteth, Liverpool after her then-boyfriend Wayne made his Premier League debut for Everton at the age of 16. This real-life soap opera takes us from a Caffe Nero in Cheshire by Land Rover to the nearby Rooney mansion back to Coleen’s Croxteth beginnings and all the way to a High Court trial at the Royal Courts of Justice. The documentary form of going down an Instagram rabbit hole, and one in my opinion worth a scroll. – Caoimhe O’Neill
Watching the Coleen Rooney documentary: One final opportunity to marvel at a soap opera for the ages
Sunderland ‘Til I Die
Released: 2018 (season 1)
How to watch: Netflix
Rob McElhenney has never been shy in explaining how he ended up the part-owner of a modest football club in north Wales. Lockdown had forced the world to watch boxsets in the spring of 2020 and among the recommendations he had been given was the tragicomic series “Sunderland ‘Til I Die.”
Part football documentary, part social study, it follows two of the worst seasons in the history of Sunderland AFC, first when relegated from the Championship and then when beaten twice in Wembley finals.
It ought to be miserable and morose, especially when the finales to both series end with tears and suffering, but those 14 episodes are an illustration of what football means to so many thousands in good times and bad. Somehow, improbably, it ends an uplifting watch thanks to the contributions of long-suffering fans, like Peter the no-nonsense cabbie.
Sunderland was an open book to producers and fly-on-the-wall content that followed the protagonists, like directors Martin Bain, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, captured scenes most clubs would hide away. The deadline day pursuit of striker Will Grigg, overpriced and ill-advised, is still best watched behind slatted fingers, as is Methven’s quest to make the Stadium of Light “a bit Ibiza” with a revamped pre-match playlist.
There is uplifting news… A shortened third series is in the can and coming to Netflix in the opening months of 2024, with Sunderland’s overdue promotion out of League One the central thread. The happy ending secured. – Philip Buckingham
Sunderland ’Til I Die revisited five years on – ‘I know Prince William’s watched it’
The Three Kings
How to watch: Prime Video (UK)
Jonny Owen’s portrait of the careers and lasting influence of Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly has a somber sincerity that so many modern documentaries lack. It has no real agenda, either, because it has nothing to sell. Instead, as well as faithfully retelling their bodies of work at Celtic, Manchester United and Liverpool, it studies the people behind three of the most compelling personalities that British football has ever known.
Stein, Busby and Shankly came from similar places. Geographically and sociologically. But they wrote their respective legends in different ways and “Three Kings” is a tender and, at times, affecting examination of how they exerted influence on their teams, their times, but also their cities. It’s essential; they altered those local cultures permanently. – Seb Stafford-Bloor
Classic tactics: The Lisbon Lions, a relentless and fluid attacking force
Higuita: The Way of the Scorpion
How to watch: Netflix
I’m going to be honest here: I don’t watch a lot of football documentaries or series. I haven’t watched Sunderland ‘Til I Die, Ted Lasso or Welcome to Wrexham. The David Beckham documentary? I started it but I haven’t finished it. I tend to disconnect from the sport that I cover when I peruse Netflix. Horror and crime dramas are my preference. However, I did recently watch Higuita: The Way of the Scorpion.
As the title suggests, the documentary tells the story of former Colombia international goalkeeper René Higuita, one of modern football’s most charismatic personalities. The film features Higuita, his family and many of his former teammates from the 1990s, which was a golden age for Colombian football. Of course, the documentary reveals the origin of his unorthodox scorpion kick, which he debuted during a 1995 friendly versus England at Wembley Stadium.
What many viewers may not know about Higuita’s past is his admitted friendly relationship with infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar or the kidnapping scandal that sent him to prison and forced him to miss Colombia’s 5-0 World Cup qualifying win over Argentina in 1993, as well as the 1994 World Cup. Higuita also discusses his proudest achievement: the creation of the “Higuita Rule,” which curtailed time wasting and changed the back pass to the goalkeeper for good. – Felipe Cardenas
‘El Pibe’ revisited: 10 thoughts and recollections from Carlos Valderrama, MLS’s first MVP No. 10
Maradona in Mexico
How to watch: Netflix
The series is entertaining, chaotic, and entirely bingeable, with sounds of cumbia sprinkled throughout. It brings the viewer through Diego Maradona’s time as manager of Dorados de Sinaloa, a second-tier, lowly-ranked team in Mexico that’s fighting for promotion back into Liga MX. It’s as much a redemption story for the club as it is for Maradona, who finds himself coaching in Culiacán, Mexico’s drug capital.
What I love most about this series is it offers raw access to Maradona in one of his final chapters before his untimely death. You watch Maradona’s health visibly decline. At one point he calls himself the loneliest man in the world. There’s a scene where he’s watching his beloved Boca Juniors in the clubhouse, and another where he’s griping about the pitch. After every big win, the team sings together, with a tiny Maradona jumping alongside his squad. It’s a marked change from the Maradona you see through much of the eponymous Netflix documentary directed by Asif Kapadia, which is also excellent.
If nothing else, this is a compelling watch for any football nerd who wants to learn more about an oft-forgotten chapter in the life of one of the sports’ biggest personalities. – Melanie Anzidei
Diego Maradona: Stories from those who knew him best
When Eagles Dare
How to watch: Prime Video
Not to be confused with the 1968 war film “Where Eagles Dare” starring Clint Eastwood, this is an inspirational and uplifting insight into a rollercoaster season at English club Crystal Palace.
In 2013, three years after being on the edge of extinction, they were within touching distance of the Premier League. With local businessman-done-good Steve Parish in charge (he still co-owns the club, alongside Americans Josh Harris, David Blitzer and John Textor), club legend Dougie Freedman as manager and academy youngster Wilfried Zaha starring on the pitch, it was going so well… until it wasn’t.
This is not the whitewashed, airbrushed, over-edited “All or Nothing” series. This is gritty, heart-wrenching, and honest. It’s a classic underdog story about how an unlikely, rag-tag group of misfits and free agents with an incredible team spirit came together to take the blue-collar south London club to the brink of the promised land (I won’t spoil the ending).
Come for the real-life Ted Lasso team AFC Richmond, stay for Irish hardman Damien Delaney’s tears, a sweary speech in the fan lounge and a deeply authentic look behind the curtain at one of the sport’s historic clubs. – Max Mathews
Glenn Murray interview: Why he joined Palace over Millwall, the threat of Kevin Phillips and understanding the Brighton rivalry
Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos
How to watch: Rent/buy on multiple platforms
At one point in this documentary about perhaps the iconic club in American men’s soccer history, an interviewee mentions that for soccer in the U.S., “there was before Pele, and after Pele.”
It’s a quote that has remarkable resonance in 2023, the year when Inter Miami owner Jorge Mas proclaimed to multiple outlets that for MLS, there would be “before and after Lionel Messi.”
Parallels like that are impossible not to think about when watching “Once in a Lifetime,” a fast-paced and at times hilarious documentary about the rise and fall of the Cosmos. Pele’s arrival to the United States is a huge storyline here, with key figures expanding upon what it took to get him to play in the U.S. at a time when the nation was a true footballing backwater. It’s interesting to see which key elements remain with Messi (including corporate media influence, big personalities and money. A lot of money.)
Overall, the documentary is a fascinating document of a moment in time, when the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and the inimitable (and occasionally nude) Shep Messing were the toast of the town and the life of the party in New York City. The soundtrack is excellent and nobody can agree on exactly what happened – the truest signs of a good party. – Alexander Abnos
Pelé’s NY Cosmos debut: ‘Like seeing the Hope Diamond in a rubbish bin’
How to watch: Netflix
It’s not exactly the feel-good film of the season, but Netflix’s USWNT World Cup docuseries provides a strange sense of closure to a dark period in the team’s journey. Plus, you can see The Athletic’s Meg Linehan discuss the obstacles the U.S. faced.
You won’t leave the four-part viewing experience with a lot of answers to why the U.S. failed to make it past the round of 16 for the first time in team history, but you will see the emotion and character of some of its players. Lynn Williams shares tearful testimonies about what it means to finally make it on the team after years of being on the outside looking in. Alyssa Thompson shares her family with the audience, as cameras follow her to a family gathering as they find out the 18-year-old is going to her first World Cup. Kristie Mewis and Sam Kerr give a sneak peek into the next chapter of their story on and off the field, which we now know includes an engagement and a move to West Ham United for Mewis.
“I wanted to tell the story of these individual experiences, which as a whole become the narrative of the story,” director Rebecca Gitlitz told The Athletic.
In a tournament many would otherwise love to forget, Under Pressure tells the story of life. It doesn’t always have the fairy tale ending, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. – Emily Olsen
USWNT docuseries leaves World Cup revelations behind, focuses on players’ humanity
(Top photos: Getty Images)