DVDs: Part 3

Gift guide

DVDs: Part 3

History of Soccer: The Beautiful Game

Fremantle Media for Shout! Factory, $99.98

You can count on one hand (okay, maybe one finger) the number of sports documentaries that have had much appeal outside the pre-existing fan base. And, okay, this is no Olympia. It is what it says, and if you have absolutely no interest in soccer or sports culture, I'm not here to say that this is the epiphany that'll change your life. Within its genre, though, this is about as good as there is – on a par with Ken Burns' Baseball, and ... well, the cupboard's a little bare after that. The true football fan will absolutely love it, of course, but this seven-volume set (12 one-hour episodes, plus some four hours of DVD extras) is a lot more than just a highlight reel of great plays and players.

The producers have assembled an astounding collection of archival material – from 1897's first-ever moving pictures of soccer to footage of virtually every major star in the game's history to every goal from every World Cup Final. But what's even better, they elicited remarkably candid interviews from many of the game's leading figures from various generations: Pelé and di Stefano, Sirs Bobby Charlton and Alex Ferguson, Ronaldo and Zidane. And, as usual, it's the bad boys who are the most interesting. An utterly unrepentant Diego Maradona speaks frankly about his ego and his drug use: "I started taking drugs in 1983, and I kept playing in world championships. ... But in the eyes of society, I'm the bad example for kids. ... They say, 'My son, he follows Maradona,' and I say, 'Shut up, fool! That's your problem, if your son follows in my tracks. If you don't know how to bring him up, that's not Maradona's fault.'"

And then there's George Best, the brightest playboy superstar of the Carnaby Street era, who burned out just as spectacularly as he had shone. His appearance is stunning – he looks like they dragged him out of a homeless shelter for his interview – but he's still sharp as a tack, and doesn't seem to have many regrets: "I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds, and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."

Overall, The Beautiful Game is good history, informative without being the least bit dry. It's also a good travelogue, taking us from the legendary stadiums of the world to the dusty fields of African club soccer, and myriad points in between. (One thing I now have to see before I die is the ancient annual "folk soccer" game in Ashbourne, England, where the entire town divides into two teams – the sea folk against the farmers – and the game is played through the town streets between goals that are three miles apart.) And it's even good sociology – tying the trends in the game into their larger cultural, political, and especially economic, context. Seriously, if you're only planning to watch one soccer documentary this year, this should be the one.

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