essential viewing

16 great sports documentaries to stream on New Year's Day

‘Finding Jack Charlton’ and other gems.

1. The Last Dance (Netflix)

Netflix / YouTube

There’s a fairly strong chance you’ve already seen this sports documentary miniseries vividly recounting the career of Michael Jordan and in particular, his final 1997-98 season with the Chicago Bulls, but whether you’re revisiting or watching for the first time, whether you’re a hardcore basketball nerd or have no interest in sport whatsoever, ‘The Last Dance’ will likely long be remembered as one of the most fascinating and captivating long-form profiles of the last decade.

2. Shane (Amazon Prime)

Prime Video AU & NZ / YouTube

Released before Warne’s untimely death from a heart attack last March, ‘Shane’ reminds viewers of what made the Australian cricket legend so special at his peak as it takes an in-depth look at his career and at times turbulent personal life.

3. Nature Boy (Disney Plus)

Maurice Coleman / YouTube

ESPN’s excellent ’30 for 30′ series is generally worth watching and this episode on the legendary professional wrestler Ric Flair is no exception. Even if you don’t consider wrestling a sport, you won’t regret checking out this documentary. It’s a typical rise and fall story, dealing with the 73-year-old’s rockstar excesses as well as the tragic aspects of his later life.

4. The Three Kings (Amazon Prime)

BritFlicks / YouTube

Jonny Owen’s film focuses on three legendary managers — Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein — who incredibly were all born within a couple of miles of each other in Glasgow. Featuring a cast that includes Patrick Barclay, George Best, Richard Burton and Ian St John, there are plenty of poignant and little-known insights provided on the lives of these remarkable figures.

5. Alex Ferguson – Never Give In (Amazon Prime)

Manchester United / YouTube

A heartfelt portrait of former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, directed by his son Jason. In addition to serving as a comprehensive synopsis of the iconic Scottish coach’s career, it also includes a detailed account of his near-death experience in 2018 from a brain haemorrhage.

6. Formula One: Drive to Survive (Netflix)

Netflix / YouTube

One of the most popular and influential documentary series in recent years, ‘Drive to Survive’ has been credited with a surge of interest in the sport, particularly Stateside where it has often been met with apathy. Produced in collaboration with Formula One, this behind-the-scenes look at some of the key figures that drive (no pun intended) the sport was recently renewed for a fifth and sixth season.

7. When We Were Kings (Criterion Channel)

Madman Films / YouTube

Much has been written and said about the iconic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ heavyweight championship match in Zaire between champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, but Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary is perhaps the definitive telling of this extraordinary event, featuring interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee and Thomas Hauser among others.

8. Diego Maradona (Amazon Prime)

HBO / YouTube

Some people’s choice as the greatest footballer that ever lived gets the top-class documentary his esteemed career deserved. ‘Diego Maradona’ is not a standard biographical film. While it covers other parts of the Argentine legend’s life, it devotes the majority of its running time to perhaps the most fascinating point in the player’s career, when he made the surprise and controversial move to Napoli after a disastrous Barcelona stint. Drug and mafia-related troubles ensued, as did footballing immortality, with Maradona improbably guiding the club to the only two Serie A triumphs in their history.

9. Finding Jack Charlton (Amazon Prime)

Finding Jack Charlton Film / YouTube

One of the most touching and thoughtful documentaries you are likely to come across. ‘Finding Jack Charlton’ — directed by Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas — expertly conveys how the English manager became such a beloved figure in Irish society. But perhaps even more affecting than all the memorable archival footage of Charlton playing and managing in his heyday is the scenes filmed showing the former footballer dealing with the advanced stages of dementia not long before his death in the summer of 2020. 

10. Rocky Road to Dublin (Mubi)

Quadflix / YouTube

This seminal 1967 film, a collaboration between Irish-born journalist Peter Lennon and French cinematographer Raoul Coutard was effectively banned in Ireland before being restored in 2004 by the Irish Film Board. It is not strictly a sports documentary, more a meditation on the state of Ireland since the 1916 Rising, though issues such as the ubiquity of Gaelic games and the ban on foreign sports feature prominently in what is now considered by many film critics as a kind of lost classic.

11. Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist (Netflix)

Netflix / YouTube

‘The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist’ recounts the scarcely believable career trajectory of Manti Te’o, a highly promising American football linebacker whose career swiftly unravelled after being caught up in a catfishing scandal. It is ultimately a melancholy story about the perils of fame and the shadier aspects of life online.

12. Athlete A (Netflix)

Rotten Tomatoes TV / YouTube

A powerful film by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, ‘Athlete A’ essentially is a filmed re-telling of the sterling work performed by a group of investigative journalists from The Indianapolis Star and the brave testimonies of a number of athletes who were caught up in the USA Gymnastics scandal in which the crimes of team doctor Larry Nassar, who was found guilty of sexually assaulting young female gymnasts, were initially covered up before eventually being exposed.

13. Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)

Netflix / YouTube

A harrowing three-part portrait of notorious former professional American football player Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd before his death by suicide in 2017. ‘Killer Inside’ attempts to investigate what led a successful athlete to commit this brutal act.

14. Icarus (Netflix)

Netflix / YouTube

Winner in the Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, Bryan Fogel’s ‘Icarus’ begins as what seems like a standard documentary about doping in cycling, but quickly acquires the feel of a thriller as a major international doping scandal is uncovered, thanks largely to the bravery of whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian anti-doping laboratory.

15. Sunderland Til I Die (Netflix)

Still Watching Netflix / YouTube

Documentaries greenlit by streaming companies about English football teams dealing with everyday challenges are fairly commonplace at this stage, with the likes of Tottenham, Man City, Arsenal, and even Wrexham profiled in recent years. However, one of the first of this wave of films remains arguably the best. The story of a side that usually wins tends to be quite dull, but ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ captures the beleaguered club in the midst of a crisis and makes for compelling viewing as a result.

16. Untold: Deal with the Devil (Netflix)

Netflix / YouTube

Unfortunately, Ross Whitaker’s excellent 2018 Katie Taylor documentary is not currently streaming on Netflix, however, there is a film available that showcases another pioneering figure in the world of female boxing. ‘Deal with the Devil’ covers Christy Martin’s unlikely rise as well as the numerous issues, including substance abuse and domestic violence, that threatened to derail her progress. 

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