Expert guide on the best sports films, documentaries and books to read while coronavirus cancels sporting events

Our writers recommend their favourites to help you pass the time without live sport

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best sports films, documentaries and books
Get your sport fix with our pick of the best films, books and documentaries 

'King of the World', by David Remnick

Reminick's book on Muhammad Ali evokes a molten period in America's history as well as recounting, with fresh insights, the life and career of the 20th century's most influential sportsman. A masterpiece of reportage. Visual recommendations: the recent vintage crop of films and documentaries on major sporting tales.

Paul Hayward

'Losers' on Netflix

A spin on the usual stories of triumph over adversity, this documentary chronicles eight examples of glorious - or in some cases plain spectacular - failure. Golfer Jean van de Velde's implosion at 1999 Open Championship is the most well known of the bunch.

Chris Bascombe

The Rocky franchise

I’ve always enjoyed the behind the scenes documentaries from the British and Irish Lions tours, but for sheer escapism, you cannot beat the Rocky franchise. There are five films plus two more from the more recent Creed franchise so lots to keep you busy. Shadow boxing around the living room also helps maintain fitness and if you’re under quarantine and can’t get to the gym...

Luke Edwards

Caddyshack

Quite simply the funniest sports film ever made. But it is more than that. It shows up the American country club in its truest light and perfectly captures the absurdity of that obsession called golf. I've seen it about 10 times and will easily double that in the forthcoming months. So I've got that going for me. Which is nice.

James Corrigan

Bill Murray stars in one the funniest sports films ever produced Credit: Rex Feature

Champions

It has to be the story of Bob Champion's 1981 Grand National victory on Aldaniti, still one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time. There are three reasons I love this film; it was the first film when they really got the footage of horses racing and jumping right, it is about a race which means so much to me and the score by Carl Davis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is so utterly moving. As a jockey waiting to go out and ride in the National, the BBC would play it on the weighing room tv just before we went out to the paddock and it got me every time. It even brought a tear to Richard Dunwoody's eye, something that half a tonne of horse falling on him could never do.   

Marcus Armytage

Baseball (1994)

DVD box set This Ken Burns series is every bit the equal of the American TV documentary master's other work on The Civil War and, most recently shown on the BBC, The Vietnam War. It tells the story of America's summer game from its cricket-inspired pre-history, its glories and its scandals. It is authoritative, engrossing, and at 18.5 hours, it will fill many a lonely hour.

Alan Tyers

Maradona

Asif Kapadia's evocation of a man trapped in the consequences of his own genius is simply stunning. What makes it so compelling is that, while sympathetic to the claustrophobia of his circumstance, the movie does not shy away from the fact it's subject is a truly horrible human being. Though, as the contemporary footage Kapadia has unearthed of him strutting his stuff in Naples discos, boy could Maradona dance.

Jim White

Diego Maradona's inspired but lurid spell in Naples is explored in a feature film Credit: Film: Diego Maradona

'Cheer' on Netflix

I am actively jealous of anyone that has not watched docuseries 'Cheer' yet, and so can put their self-isolation time to best use. Chronicling Texan Navarro College's cheerleading team, you will be surprised by your quick and intense investment in the injury drama, athletes' backstories and even adoption of the lingo ('pyramid' will never have the same meaning again). The only problem is it might not last you long (I watched all six episodes in two sittings pre-Covid-19).

Molly McElwee

Anything to do with Muhammad Ali

The extensive library of Muhammad Ali books, films and documentaries is a good place to start. The most exhaustive account of his life is surely still Thomas Hauser’s ‘Muhammad Ali: His life and Times’ but perhaps the best written is David Remnick’s ‘King of the World’. In terms of the screen, the film When We Were Kings, which focuses on Ali’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman in 1974, is magnificent. 

Jeremy Wilson

The documentary 'Club For a Fiver'

All-access football documentaries these days are highly airbrushed affairs. Things were different in 1995, when student Jo Treharne was allowed access to Leyton Orient, then managed by F-bomb detonation expert John Sitton. Highlights include a rapidly unravelling Sitton sacking defender Terry Howard at half time, offering two others a fight ("You can team up if you want, and you can bring your f------ dinner") and a comparatively fresh-faced Barry Hearn saving the day. The film is notorious for its profanity but the lack of budget means there's a beautiful economy to how the story is told. After Sitton's latest desperate sweary team-talk away at Brentford, the screen cuts to black and flashes up the halftime score. Brentford 3 Orient 0. It's some way from the polish of Netflix, but free to watch here.

Thom Gibbs

ESPN 30 for 30’s The Two Escobars

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the release of this two-hour masterpiece chronicling the remarkable connection between the world’s richest drugs kingpin Pablo Escobar and tragic namesake Andres, who was assassinated after scoring an own goal at the 1994 World Cup. I cannot recall a more compelling football documentary.

Ben Rumsby

Andres Escobar lies on the turf after scoring an own goal at the 1994 World Cup Credit: Getty Images

The Tennis Podcast

As a (very) occasional contributor, I must declare an interest. But I think any neutral would agree that David Law, Catherine Whitaker and Matt Roberts have created a roaringly successful blend of reportage, comment and nerdiness. On top of an eight-year, 650-show archive, they have also promised to keep plugging away with interviews and features until the tennis tour resumes.

Simon Briggs

Maradona

"Maradona" is quite possibly, with a hat tip to the nonsense of “Escape to Victory”, the best film about football ever made. Directed by Asif Kapadia, the maker of “Amy” and “Senna”, it is a compelling documentary which is superbly told and with extraordinary footage. It was also a smart move to hone in on the madness of his career at Napoli.

Jason Burt

Out of the Ashes

This film captures cricket’s most unexpected phenomenon, the sudden rise of Afghanistan, artistically and humorously. This story can give us strength too during and after the virus: 20 years ago Afghanistan had no cricket ground, and no cricketers except a few refugees hitting a ball in camps around Peshawar. Now they are a Test country, 10th in the ODI rankings and 7th in T20.

Scyld Berry

Out of the Ashes tell the story of Afghanistan's remarkable development Credit: AFP

Spinning Out

Television programmes portraying fictional sport can often veer towards the trashy (hello, Dream Team!) but this Netflix drama series which focuses on a group of young American figure-skaters is binge worthy fare, which will  keep you distracted from the lack of real sport, even if there is something rather soapy about it.

Yet, despite the outrageous plot twists, the series’ ability to tackle some of sports trickier issues including mental health and abuse give it substance. British actress Kaya Scodelario gives a haunting performance as a tortured young athlete and January Jones (she of Mad Men fame) is fantastic (and terrifying) in her role as the “skating mom”. Unfortunately, there is only one series out, so you may feel a bit bereft when you have gone through the ten episodes. Alas, there is always Dream Team to return to! 

Kate Rowan

Be Careful What You Wish For 

Not my favourite sports book but it's certainly one of the more entertaining reads of recent times and well worth your attention. Whatever you think of Simon Jordan, he's an intriguing character and charts his rise and fall with remarkable candidness - he's not afraid to poke fun at himself, or take someone down. The book is packed full of hilarious anecdotes from the madcap world of football, although the earlier part of the book detailing how he made his fortune is no less interesting. There are some corking, laugh out loud lines in it, too - telling the former Palace Steve Coppell, during one terse exchange in the back of a car, that he was so negative he was interfering with his mobile signal just one of them!

James Ducker

Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography by Mike Tyson

There are few sporting lives as enthralling as that of Mike Tyson, whose journey from the impoverished streets of Brooklyn to global fame is recounted here in such eye-opening detail that, at times, the book feels more like a work of extravagant fiction than an actual autobiography. The talent, excess, the idiocy, the money, the drugs, the fame, the loss, the pain: there are plenty of layers to Tyson and Undisputed Truth does a fine job of peeling them back.

Sam Dean

Mike Tyson's career was one of the most tumultuous in sport Credit: Getty Images

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Sure, the TV series version of FNL is fine, but the film, based on the real 1988 Permian High School Panthers American Football team and their quest to win the Texas state championship? Iconic. Billy Bob Thornton plays coach Gary Gaines in a gritty, brilliant tale centred around a small town’s obsession with their high school team and their infectious running back Boobie Miles, all soundtracked by a group who are personal favourite, Explosions In The Sky.

Ben Coles

A Natural, by Ross Raisin

Published in 2017 this football novel passed largely without reaction in the game. It’s a beautifully written imagining of a gay footballer’s life in the modern era. In terms of the detail of life at a lower league club it is impeccably researched. The key character, Tom Pearman, is making his way in League Two after teenage years at a top club’s academy, and coping with his own sexual identity in a world where age-old conventions and traditional notions of masculinity still reign supreme.

Sam Wallace

Do I Not Like That

It is the best football documentary and completely free on YouTube, with no need for a monthly subscription to a streaming service. Graham Taylor's documentary on the "Impossible Job" of England manager is as compelling now as when it first came out. Gazza, Carlton Palmer, Platty, Phil Neal, Fleet Street reporters and at the heart of it a kind man who has been missed. "Can ya, Merse?" and "this is made for Wrighty", just a couple of the phrases that stick. 

Mike McGrath

Many were more sympathetic to Graham Taylor after watching the documentary Credit: Philip Brown

QB1: Beyond the Lights on Netflix

A former employee of the NFL once told me that you have to “embrace the cheese” when watching behind-the-scenes American football documentaries. Last Chance U, Hard Knocks and All or Nothing – especially the Michigan Wolverines series – are very enjoyable if you follow that rule. QB1 follows talented high-school quarterbacks as they wrestle with hype, hubris, injuries and other obstacles. The first season, released in 2017, is now old enough that one of its stars, God-fearing Georgian Jake Fromm, is poised to be part of the upcoming NFL draft.

Charlie Morgan

Senna

The defining quality of Asif Kapadia's 2011 film is that it relies solely on raw footage of Ayrton Senna's life and greatest drives, never resorting to talking heads. Beautifully evoking the Brazilian's charisma, it eschews mawkishness in favour of an even-handed tribute, one whose appeal extends far beyond motorsport aficionados.  

Oliver Brown

Living with the Lions

A clichéd pick, but it remains rugby's greatest chronicle, charting both the grittiness and the jollity of an unfancied British and Lions squad conquering the world champions, South Africa. Relative unknowns became superstars: John Bentley's lionhearted foolishness; Jim Telfer's hair-raising prose; Keith Wood and his court. And the celestial Martin Johnson's notorious half-time stitches furore. Too many tour documentaries since have been stale, stripped of personality. 1997 was rugby's apogee.

Charles Richardson

When We Were Kings

While we are living in something of a golden age for sporting documentaries, nothing will top the levels of drama or insight offered by Leon Gast’s seminal film on the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Ali’s charisma leaps off the screen and his vignettes lodge themselves in your brain. "Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick! I'm so mean I make medicine sick.” As a companion piece, David Remnick’s ‘King of the World’ remains the definitive biography of the Greatest.

Daniel Schofield

Into Thin Air

“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. The trick is to get back down alive.’’ Everest has always held a bit of a fascination for me. I remember as a small child a distant cousin climbing it and returning to the UK minus a few toes. Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Everest disaster is one of the most riveting sports books I’ve ever read. A mountaineer turned journalist, Krakauer set out to write a story about the commercialisation of Everest for Outside magazine. He ended up joining a fee-paying expedition led by an experienced New Zealand guide Rob Hall, who said that line about “any bloody idiot” being able to get up the hill. The story that unfolds is gripping, troubling and deeply moving. 

Tom Cary 

Pedalare! Pedalare!

Cycling fans may have been neglected the opportunity to watch one of the most evocative races on the calendar after Strade Bianche was postponed earlier this month, but in Pedalare! Pedalare! they are transported back to the very time when white roads were the norm and the original campionissimo  Costante Girardengo ruled. In this lovingly researched history of Italian cycling, John Foot looks at the political and social upheavals that shaped – and reshaped – the country and the sport. With all due respect, here's hoping Foot is not forced into writing a further chapter on the season that never was.

John MacLeary

Football Manager 20

Think Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn't know what he's doing? Football Manager gives you the opportunity to see if you can do better. Reckon a Johan Cruyff 4-3-3 would get Aberdeen to topple the Old Firm in Scotland? Try it. The only real downside to playing is how attached to digital versions of players you become, but patience, research and knowledge of tactics, coaching and footballers from around the world are rewarded in the most immersive and addictive football videogame of all time. Newest game comes with a separate streamlined retro version for those intimidated by the daunting airplane cockpit controls, though those soon become familiar friends anyway.

JJ Bull

A Fan's Notes

The model for all memoirs juxtaposing the author’s own life and mental state with the fortunes of a sports team – or in this case a player, his old college mate Frank Gifford of the New York Giants – but blaming the book for its legion of anaemic imitators is like holding The Rolling Stones responsible for Kasabian. Frederick Exley’s subjects are frustration, addiction, parental disappointment and mental illness, themes that would make the second two books in the trilogy, Pages From a Cold Island and Last Notes From Home so wearying. But A Fan’s Notes is a triumph of revulsion, largely self-directed, written by a sensitive, observant, witty and lacerating author who reveals the fan’s condition – envy, identification, love and loathing - in the distance between his own broken life and the golden Gifford’s.

Rob Bagchi

When We Were Kings/Soul Power

Re-watch the documentary When We Were Kings about The Rumble In The Jungle and also watch the musical documentary Soul Power that was made at the same time. The greatest black musicians went out to perform in Zaire where Muhammad Ali and George Foreman were fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world.

Gareth A Davies

What sporting films, books and documentaries would you recommend? Tell us in the comments section