Top 21 sport films and documentaries to watch in self-isolation

With the coronavirus forcing many of us to stay inside, we recommend some of the best sport films, documentaries and more

Monday 23 March 2020 10:30 GMT
There is plenty available to scratch your sporting itch
There is plenty available to scratch your sporting itch

The coronavirus has hit the sporting world hard, with barely any live action remaining as the world contends with the pandemic.

With many now in self-isolation, options are sparse, which leaves most of us with no choice but to turn to our favourite films, series, books and podcasts about sport.

The good news is there is no shortage of options across a plethora of platforms in 2020, the bad news is it can sometimes be tricky knowing where to start.

But, from tragedy to triumph, tears of sadness to pure laughter, we’ll have you covered to fill those hours.

Make the most of your subscriptions or track down the following recommendations and avoid boredom this weekend.


The Damned United (Amazon Prime)

A film about one of football's greatest figures in Brian Clough, that makes the inspired decision not to actually show much football. This is what really elevates 'The Damned United', which is based on David Peace's acclaimed but controversial book. It focuses on the natural drama surrounding a personality as colourful as Clough, and a key moment in his career.

There are no sporting cliches here, bar the lines made so famous by Clough, and naturally re-interpreted here. If the centre-piece of the story is his relationship with Don Revie and Leeds United, however, the film is really about his partnership with Peter Taylor. That is its driving force, and what it studies, how one couldn't work without the other. In that sense, as much as a story about one of the game's great figures, it is really almost 'The Shawshank Redemption' in football. (Miguel Delaney)

Fever Pitch (Amazon Prime)

This is a film that can't avoid the sporting fiction cliche of the last-minute winner, since it is inherently built around one of the most famous last-minute winners in the game's history - but that is to its credit. There are very few works that have handled a real-life sporting moment so well, so beautifully incorporating them into the story of the film so that it serves as the perfect crescendo in both a narrative sense and a sporting sense.

Building up to and building on Arsenal's sensational 1989 title victory, 'Fever Pitch' is based on Nick Hornby's famous book, which is really about obsession with the game. The film neatly and sweetly wonders how a love story with anything beyond a football club can build into this, and works very well. Most effective of all is probably that it brings you back to the 'feel' of the 1988-89 season.

That goes right up to the tragedy of Hillsborough, to the little touches like one of the main character's friends responding to David Pleat's commentary in that fateful match at Anfield by telling him to "f**k off". Either way, real-life sport has rarely been handled so well. It will transport you. (MD)

This Is Football (Amazon Prime)

Amazon Prime’s This is Football is an emotional trail through the sport, tracking how it helped rebuild Rwanda after the genocide all the way through to unpacking Lionel Messi’s mastery.

The six-part documentary explores the game’s impact across the world through stories that would otherwise never surface, from Delhi to South Africa, tugging at heart strings and reminding us why 22 guys kicking a ball around is so significant.

An uplifting, inspirational watch that is just the tonic right now. (Melissa Reddy)

Bend it like Beckham (YouTube/Google Play)

An Indian female lead in a British film. Irish love interest with piercing eyes. Cameo from Shaznay of All Saints. Football, too.

Don’t be a dick. It’s good. And only £2.49 on YouTube. Just watch it. (Vithushan Ehantharajah)

United Passions (Amazon Prime)

United Passions is the tale of how three plucky football administrators built the modern-day Fifa over the course of a century. It made $918 on opening weekend, becoming the lowest-grossing film in US box office history, losing $27m total. It has a score of 1 out of 100 on Metacritic.

It is a terrible, terrible film. But it is also a historically significant artefact, a staggering monument to the vanity and conceit synonymous with the late Sepp Blatter years, and a reminder of how self-indulged those at the very top of sport can become. (Mark Critchley)

US Sports

Hoop Dreams (Curzon/YouTube)

“The great American documentary”, according to the late critic Roger Ebert. Filmed over eight years, Hoop Dreams follows two African-American high-school basketball stars in Chicago who harbour dreams of playing in the NBA. The fact that you’ve never heard of William Gates or Arthur Agee reveals how successful they were but the lessons of Hoop Dreams lie in their pursuit of that goal, the sacrifices made by their families for scant reward, and the way that class and race play just as much part in their story as sporting ability. (MC)

OJ: Made in America

The 2000 yards in a 14-game season for the Buffalo Bulls that has never been replicated. Over 95 million people tuning into the low-speed chase of the white Ford Bronco SUV. The Trial of the Century that lasted 11 months, carrying 45,000-plus pages of testimony from more than 100 witnesses.

OJ Simpson, the NFL’s record-breaking running back. The ‘Juice.’ The Hall of Famer. The face of Hertz. OJ Simpson, the double-murder accused. The domestic abuser. The poster boy for racial divisions in Los Angeles and wider America, despite declaring: “I’m not black. I’m OJ.”

OJ Simpson, not guilty – well, not officially in a criminal court anyway. All these vignettes combine powerfully and to stunning effect in the five-part documentary directed by Ezra Edelman, which tells the story everyone knows better than anyone has ever done and with a more panoramic lens.

In a captivating seven hours and 43 minutes, OJ: Made in America unboxes themes of sports, celebrity, abuse and murder all framed by the overarching narrative of race.

Edelman rewinds to the 1965 Watts Riots, the 1979 beating to death of Lula Love by police precipitated by an overdue gas bill, the killing of Latasha Harlins and the savage battering of Rodney King which that was caught on camera to paint the picture of discrimination in LA and the distrust of law enforcement, which was crucial to OJ’s trial

Interviewees include Marcia Clark and Bill Hodgman from the prosecution, the defence team’s Carl Douglas, F. Lee Bailey and Barry Scheck, members of the LAPD – including the the notorious Mark Fuhrman, who had used racial slurs – as well as Gil Garcetti, LA’s district attorney at the time.

There are especially gripping moments, like OJ’s former manager Mike Gilbert revealing he told his client that not taking his arthritis medicine would make his hands swell before the famous ‘if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit’ glove scene, but the more you watch, the more you realise this isn’t really about the man in the dock.

It’s about everything else: society, culture and the different contexts through which we view the same things. (MR)

Any Given Sunday (Amazon/YouTube/Google Play)

You’ve heard it before. You may know it off by heart. The speech. That speech.

“The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches that’s gonna make the f**king difference between winning and losing, between living and dying!”

Al Pacino’s rousing words in the role of coach Tony D’Amato, three minutes before the Miami Sharks tackle the biggest battle of their professional lives, is what Any Given Sunday is remembered for. But director Oliver Stone’s 1999 layered look at the business of the NFL was more than just motivational cliches and was actually ahead of its time. Dr. Harvey Mandrake’s decisions over Luther Lavay’s concussion issues and the linebacker pushing himself through games just to ensure a bonus large enough to retire is not out of step with today’s discussion over head injuries in the sport. Jamie Foxx’s ‘Steamin’ Beamen’ character being told to shut up and just follow plays triggers the mind to Colin Kaepernick.

The good, the bad and the batshit of one of America’s greatest institutions is under the microscope in a movie that doesn’t really feel like it was made over two decades ago. (MR)

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)

This hard-hitting documentary is a sobering experience in what is still, almost three years on, a scarcely believable story about a superstar athlete who had it all.

A key cog in arguably the most dominant sports franchise of all time, Killer Inside details the disturbing origin of the former New England Patriot’s troubles.

The documentary does a good job of showing how elite athletes cover themselves in a cloak of invisibility, with this the most extreme example of one’s thoughtlessness for repercussions. A sad tale, which will provoke equal amounts of both anger and sympathy for those impacted by Hernandez’s reckless actions, which left a trail of destruction. (Jack Rathborn)

Killer Inside tells the tragic story of Aaron Hernandez

Gladiator: Aaron Hernandez and Football Inc. (Podcast)

You might have watched the Netflix special, but is is nothing compared to the exhaustive detail of Hernandez’s personal, private, school, university and professional life that this eight-part series from Boston Globe serves up.

You’ll have listened to enough of these kind of podcasts to know the format: never-before-aired interviews, . But importantly you’ll have listened to enough of these kind of podcasts done badly. And perhaps the biggest compliment is that this 2018 production is a standout of the genre.

As a Massachusetts institution, the doors prised open by the Globe’s Spotlight Team and the information squeezed out are adeptly used to enhance the story while never trivialising it. This, by the way, was their first splash-less dive into multi-episode waters.

Writing this without giving away spoilers seems overcautious given Hernandez’s story, of murder and family struggle to name just two strands, are well-known. But the intricacies unearthed and the nuggets that form a most complexed character are stitched together seamlessly, meaning the only leaps to take are in wondering how one person with so many around him and so much more going for him went catastrophically off the rails.

Indeed, one of my biggest thoughts upon finishing the show was wondering if a troubled upbringing started what the brutality of American Football finished. (VE)

Space Jam (YouTube/Google Play)

Space Jam is bonkers – an NBA and Looney Tunes crossover where the protagonists battle roided-up aliens in a game of basketball with the fate of Michael Jordan (and all of humanity) on the line.

This film came out in 1996, the year I was born, so was my entry point to Jordan when I was a toddler in a world without YouTube. His performance against the ‘Monstars’ and that game-winning, buzzer-beating dunk… Surely it trumps any accomplishment by the icon in the NBA. This film is ridiculous, and so much fun. (Alex Pattle)

All the Smoke (Podcast/YouTube)

Former NBA stars Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson capitalise on their unrivalled connections to fix up deep conversations with basketball royalty. The long-form podcasts (also available on YouTube) provide a unique insight into the sport with their familiarity or friendship with the guests ensuring no topic is out of bounds. Be sure to check out some fascinating conversations with the late Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade and more. (JR)

NFL Game Pass (app/website)

Hardcore NFL fans will already be familiar with Game Pass, but the shield have made it available to all during this pandemic, offering a glimpse of the sport to those intrigued. Before long you’ll be addicted with eight seasons of games to delve into.

While Hard Knocks and the mountain of content to celebrate the league’s 100th anniversary (including Bill Belichick sitting down with Tom Brady for the Quarterbacks episode for the All-Time Team series) stand out in their exceptional library. (JR)


The Fighter (Netflix)

Based on ‘Irish’ Micky Ward and his drug-addled and down-trodden brother Dicky, the seven-time Academy Award-nominated boxing film is a gripping and at times, wrenching watch, even if it does fall into the genre’s typical stereotypes. Dicky – played by a skeleton of Christian Bale – and their dysfunctional family provide the captivating rags on a far more magnetic journey than its protagonist’s pursuit of riches. If you’re seeking the vivid, hair-raising thrill of watching the action unfold, Raging Bull or The Wrestler are better suited. But the scars and nuances beyond the ring still make The Fighter a memorable watch. (Tom Kershaw)

Southpaw (Amazon/YouTube/Google Play)

If you’ve never felt eight ounces of leather vitriol being driven into your liver via your rib cage, it’s hard to comprehend the devastation of a body shot in boxing. Somehow, it sticks in your throat, stealing breath. Southpaw is a body blow of a film. In the vein of fellow boxing movie Million Dollar Baby, 2015’s Southpaw centres on tragedy and mourning, and is a heavy, heavy watch. But the destination warrants the journey, as does one of the best performances of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career. The uplifting elements of the Rocky and Creed films find a way into Southpaw, but are accompanied by much more grit. (AP)

Losers (Netflix)

A tremendous series examining the near-misses and devastating lows of sport, beautifully told alongside some brilliant cartoons.

Short-enough to provide intrigue for those not blessed with an expertise on each sport, but with substantial detail to offer plenty of insight.

‘The Miscast Champion’, starring former heavyweight world champion Michael Bentt stands out among the eight episodes, detailing his harrowing upbringing, Hollywood-like career in the ring and inspirational response to adversity.

The series also includes the agony and humour of Jean Van de Velde’s 72nd hole at The Open in 1999, the ultra marathon runner left for dead in the Moroccan desert and the police dog’s pivotal role in Torquay’s battle against relegation. (JR)


Drive to Survive (Netflix)

The fly-on-the-wall documentary peels back the layers on Formula One like never before, and possibly never again, as Netfilx are granted unrestricted access on the most secretive paddock in sport. Series one took F1 to a brand new audience - and introduced Haas team principal Guenther Steiner as possibly the angriest man on the planet - by following the 2018 season with around-the-calendar coverage, documenting the mid-field battle, the struggles at the back of the field and the off-track driver negotiations.

But it’s series two that hit new levels when it was released last month as the arrival of Mercedes and Ferrari to Drive to Survive - having initially refused to be part of it - shows just how important the programme has become to fan-team interaction. Follow the rollercoaster of emotions as each different episode charts the feeling of winning, losing, jubilation and tragedy, and with 10 episodes per series there’s plenty of viewing to enjoy in the lonely weeks ahead. (Jack De Menezes)

Road (Amazon Prime)

The lesser-known motorcycling road racing film to Guy Martin’s Closer to the Edge, but one that really cuts to the raw emotion of the two-wheel world. Road follows the careers of two generations of the Dunlop’s, the Northern Irish family whose legacy in motorsport beats all others. Joey and Robert made their name through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, creating legacies that Robert’s two sons Michael and William would go on to try and emulate.

Charting the perils that surrounds road racing and the deadly Isle of Man TT and North West 200 races, Road goes a long way to answering the question of why anyone would be crazy enough to jump on a 200mph missile and hurtle themselves through lamp posts and bus shelters, all in the name of finding the ultimate adrenaline rush. (JDM)

Senna (Netflix)

The inspiration for Netflix’s Drive to Survive series documents the racing career of three-time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna, who tragically was killed while racing at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Director Asif Kapadia was granted never-before-seen footage by the Senna family to create arguably the greatest sporting film that charts the journey of one single person.

Senna captures how special the Brazilian was not just as a racing driver, but as a human being, ranging from his religious and philosophical approach to the sport, his ability to hand out a shellacking where needed, his constant battle with the political side of f1 and his personal pain at the standard of living back in his home country. For anyone who has never seen Formula One before or who resemble no interest in motorsport, Senna is the perfect place to start. (JDM)

Other sports

Caddyshack (Amazon/YouTube/Google Play)

It’s childish, slapstick, and without any serious depth, yet if you want to laugh with whole-hearted guilt, Harold Ramis’s crude golfing comedy remains a classic. From Rodney Dangerfield to Bill Murray, it see-saws between the absurdly hilarious and the hilariously absurd. It’s certainly not of a particularly high-brow genre, rather one cut as low to the soil as its gopher-tarnished greens.

But once you embrace it in all its glorious idiocy, Caddyshack will lift your spirits and force you to shed your maturity in a way few other sporting films can manage. (TK)

Cheer (Netflix)

Cheer documents the journey of the Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team

Let’s start with this: you’ll struggle to watch anything better.

Nothing will change your mind about a subject quicker and so dramatically. Nothing will fill you with as much angst and joy. Nothing will leave such a hole when it’s gone. And for that reason, maybe this isn’t the best docuseries to watch when you’re stuck inside waiting for the world you tolerated to crumble.

But if you think you can stomach that emotional dread, the six hours are so, so worth it. The Netflix show follows Navarro College, the best competitive junior-college cheerleading squad in the country. You are dropped in three months from the 2019 national championships in Daytona – the pinnacle of the sport.

“Sport” seems a bit out of place there, you might think. Cheerleading, at best, is quite literally sport-adjacent. But that opinion might change when you witness the concussions, broken bones and acrobatic feats that these, well, kids are able to pull off. Throw in the various socio-economic struggles of each individual, not to mention the political issues of a sexually diverse group trying to embrace being themselves in small-town Corsicana, Texas, and you have plenty to chew on and sometimes too much to stomach.

This is the kind of show where you’ll become an expert in the characters and the craft. And as someone who resents those people who are suddenly tennis expects two weeks a year, I’ve no shame in admitting to shouting at the screen when LaDarius wouldn’t let something go or judging Morgan for not pointing my toes. I didn’t like what I became but I love what Cheer did to me. You will too. (VE)

Andy Murray: Resurfacing (Amazon Prime)

Resurfacing is the sort of real-life tale that inspires so many fictional plots in sports movies. “I was the No. 1 tennis player in the world, and I couldn’t walk,” says Andy Murray in one of the most poignant lines of an extremely moving documentary about his return to tennis following a career-threatening hip injury and surgery.

The only thing that could have made this better would have been a later release date – it came out in November, slightly too soon for his Antwerp final triumph over Stan Wawrinka in October to be included. That win marked his first singles title since returning to the tour last summer. Watching this documentary, it’s fairly clear that Murray shouldn’t have been able to win a singles title at all, nor a doubles title, let alone a ­match.

If you’re one of those people who still views the Scot as surly, you could do worse than watching this inspiring documentary. (AP)

Free Solo (Amazon/YouTube/Google Play)

The film-documentary charting Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first free solo climber to conquer El Capitan – the legendary 900-metre cliff face in Yosemite – boasts the rare quality of suffocating you while your mouth is wide open.

The frightening, genuinely-life threatening feat of Honnold’s attempt – and the vivid, suspenseful detail in which it’s captured – is awe-striking and addictively horrifying in its danger. Juxtaposed with the emotion and agony of Honnold’s reluctantly supportive girlfriend, it’s impossible to look away, even though every slither of common sense in your body is urging you to. (TK)

The King of Kong (Amazon/YouTube/Google Play)

The King of Kong is the original e-sports underdog story, tracking middle school science teacher and everyman figure Steve Wiebe’s attempt to break the world record high score on Donkey Kong, held for 20 years by hot sauce entrepreneur and ‘video game player of the century’ Billy Mitchell.

It is a tale of power, deceit and corruption in small-town America, featuring a glorious supporting cast of nerds. Take Roy ‘Mr Awesome’ Schilt who, when at one stage accused of threatening Mitchell’s life, insists: “No, I did not. I did not. He threatened his own life...” (MC)

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