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Footballers on film: the soccer stars who’ve tackled acting, from Ian Wright to David Beckham

From left to right: Pelé, David Beckham, Vinnie Jones and Ian Wright  (Alamy/Netflix)
From left to right: Pelé, David Beckham, Vinnie Jones and Ian Wright (Alamy/Netflix)

From famous footballer to aspiring film star: it’s a path that’s surprisingly well trodden. The latest former player to delve into the world of acting is ex-Arsenal star, Match of the Day pundit and all-round national treasure Ian Wright, who appears in Daniel Kaluuya’s directorial debut The Kitchen.

In the dystopian drama, which arrives on Netflix on Friday, Wright plays the host of a pirate radio station who serves as the voice of the local community. According to Kaluuya (who happens to be a massive Arsenal fan), Wrighty didn’t get fast-tracked into the role: he had to audition like any other hopeful. His performance has already garnered some pretty positive reactions, which isn’t exactly common in the pantheon of footballers turned thespians.

Why do so many soccer legends – already rich and highly successful in their chosen arena – decide to explore acting? It’s a field where there’s huge potential for mockery if things go wrong (film critics can arguably be even more savage than football fans). Perhaps it’s the lure of one of the only other industries that can command comparatively massive salaries and ensure the attention of millions. Or perhaps these sports stars are just thwarted theatre kids at heart. Or maybe, like David Beckham, they just happen to be mates with Guy Ritchie.

From Pelé’s surprisingly varied film career to the Michael Owen show that seems to have been lost in the sands of time, these are some of the most memorable footballer screen appearances...

David Beckham

Makeunder: Beckham donned prosthetics for his role as a knight (Alamy)
Makeunder: Beckham donned prosthetics for his role as a knight (Alamy)

In Guy Ritchie’s take on medieval England in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, all ye olde lads have slicked-back hair with fancy undercuts. David Beckham, then, fits right in when he makes a brief appearance as the grumpy knight tasked with the most boring bit of admin in the Arthurian legends: ensuring that all the hopefuls who reckon they have a shot at pulling the sword from the stone are standing in an orderly queue. “’Ands on the ’ilt, stupid!” he yells at Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur, in a slightly more cockneyfied (ie Ritchie-fied) version of his usual voice. Beckham’s role is about as cursory as the production crew’s attempts to make him less handsome (with a prosthetic wound stuck on one side of his face and a set of yellowed teeth).

King Arthur is his second foray into the Ritchie-verse, after an even briefer cameo as a bespectacled projectionist in The Man from UNCLE, in which he pulls off a passable Russian accent. Neither of these roles, though, holds a candle to his best work to date: man poking his head around the door to quiz Victoria Beckham on her “working-class” origins in his self-titled Netflix doc.

Michael Owen

At the turn of the millennium, Michael Owen was rendered out of action thanks to a ruptured hamstring. The then Liverpool striker made the best possible use of his downtime: starring as himself in the CBBC show Hero to Zero. Owen appeared as a sort of guardian angel slash agony-uncle figure for the 10-year-old protagonist Charlie; in each episode, he’d emerge from a poster on the youngster’s bedroom wall to dish out advice on life both on and off the pitch. Presumably, he didn’t provide Charlie with film recommendations, though. In an age where there’s a bootleg copy of pretty much everything lurking in the recesses of the internet, it’s still impossible to track down Hero to Zero online. “Has Michael Owen with his immense power removed this from the face of the Earth?” one sleuth asks on a Reddit post dedicated to the show. Food for thought.

Vinnie Jones

Prolific: ‘Lock, Stock’ was just the first in a series of bad-guy roles for Jones (Alamy)
Prolific: ‘Lock, Stock’ was just the first in a series of bad-guy roles for Jones (Alamy)

Of course, Beckham isn’t the only former footballer that Ritchie has coaxed into the world of film. Towards the end of his professional career, Wimbledon midfielder Vinnie Jones, whose only prior screen experience was a gig as the presenter of notorious football video Soccer’s Hard Men, took his first acting role in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He put his signature dead-eyed stare to good use as Big Chris, a debt collector with a penchant for bashing his victims on the head with a tanning-bed lid.

It was the first in a series of wrong’un roles for Jones, who’s since been reliably typecast as a menacing heavy or dodgy dealer, albeit with the odd foray into comedy: see his role as an inexplicably cockney, mildly terrifying sports coach in US teen romcom She’s the Man (“We. Do. Not. Discriminate. Based. On. Gendaaaaah!” he hisses when someone takes issue with Amanda Bynes playing on the otherwise all-male squad). Say what you like about his acting ability, he’s one of the only footballers who has actually managed to sustain a screen career beyond novelty cameos: later this year, he’ll reunite with Ritchie for Netflix series The Gentleman.

Pelé

Eclectic: Pelé had a varied filmography to his name (Alamy)
Eclectic: Pelé had a varied filmography to his name (Alamy)

In addition to, you know, being one of the greatest footballers of all time, Pelé was a bit of a renaissance man: off pitch, he was a singer-songwriter, a composer, and an actor with a varied filmography. He appeared in a sci-fi show as an alien, played an abolitionist in period drama A Marcha, and, most famously, starred in the Second World War drama Escape to Victory, which featured a mix of professional footballers (including Bobby Moore, plus a whole load of Ipswich Town players) and big Hollywood names like Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Sylvester Stallone. The film focused on a group of Allied prisoners in a German camp, who agree to play a match against a German team. In his autobiography, Pelé launched a few shots at Stallone, who “wouldn’t let anyone else sit in his chair on the set”.

Eric Cantona

Meta: Cantona plays himself as a hallucination in Ken Loach’s ‘Looking for Eric’ (Alamy)
Meta: Cantona plays himself as a hallucination in Ken Loach’s ‘Looking for Eric’ (Alamy)

Footballers tend to throw themselves into acting with wildly varying scales of commitment. On the seriously half-arsed end of the spectrum? Playing yourself in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Ted Lasso appearance. On the other extreme is appearing in a tragicomedy directed by Ken Loach. Manchester United legend Eric Cantona falls into the latter category. Shortly after retiring from the game at the age of 30, he made his first foray into acting with more illustrious fare than the usual phoned-in footballer cameo, appearing as the French ambassador in Elizabeth opposite Cate Blanchett’s Gloriana. After spending the best part of a decade appearing in French and English productions, he then starred in Loach’s Looking for Eric, playing a version of himself that appears as a hallucination for a depressed Man U fan.

Neymar

Making your acting debut in what has to be one of the most tedious, generic and instantly forgettable action movies of all time is arguably an ill-advised move. Especially when you could probably better spend your time sitting at home counting your piles of cash. But that’s exactly what Neymar did when he signed up to appear in xXx: Return of Xander Cage in 2017. The footballer appears in the opening moments of the movie slash prolonged excuse for Vin Diesel to blow stuff up, and in his one brief scene, he sits opposite Samuel L Jackson’s Augustus Gibbons, who is attempting to recruit him as an xXx agent. The script has all the panache of an Evri chatbot, but it feels quite cruel to place the Brazilian in a two-hander with the very charismatic Jackson. Still, the experience clearly gave Neymar a taste for theatrics: he has since appeared in a few episodes of the Netflix hit Money Heist, playing... a monk.

Zlatan Ibrahimović

Fierce: Ibrahimović plays a formidable Roman warrior (Alamy)
Fierce: Ibrahimović plays a formidable Roman warrior (Alamy)

In Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom, Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimović plays a Roman warrior called Caius Antivirus. Just let that sink in: Antivirus. Perhaps it sounds more funny in the original French. Anyway, it’s the first clue that Ibrahimović’s role isn’t exactly going to be nuanced, awards-worthy fare. The second is when he’s introduced to the strains of a version of “We Will Rock You” (it just consists of “Antivirus” over and over again, so has something of the football chant about it) appearing in front of graphics apparently borrowed from the old PC game Age of Empires. Still, he does bring an element of his acrobatic on-pitch flair to his fight scenes and stunts.

Zinedine Zidane

Why does the Asterix franchise have former footballers in such a vice-like grip? Is it part of some sort of arts-sports crossover scheme put on by the French government? Back in 2008, a couple of years after that World Cup final headbutting incident, Zizou donned a luxuriant black wig and some eyeliner worthy of Claudia Winkleman to play an ancient Egyptian with anachronistic soccer skills in Asterix at the Olympic Games (his name? Numerodix, a joke you probably won’t need GCSE French to unravel). It’s pretty hard to judge his performance when the English language version is dubbed so crudely, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

Stan Collymore

Fleeting: Collymore only appears in the film’s opening scenes (Alamy)
Fleeting: Collymore only appears in the film’s opening scenes (Alamy)

Erotic thriller Basic Instinct was one of the most talked-about – and controversial – films of the Nineties. So when it came to casting the role of Sharon Stone’s love interest in the sequel’s opening scenes, who better than, checks notes, former Nottingham Forest and Liverpool centre-forward Stan Collymore? Admittedly, “love interest” is, to paraphrase Mark Corrigan from Peep Show, a bit of a grandiose term for a character who, erm, helps Stone’s Catherine get off, then promptly drowns in the Thames. Although Stone tipped him for future screen stardom, Basic Instinct 2 remains Collymore’s only foray into film.

Ian Wright

The Kitchen isn’t Wrighty’s first crack at acting. Back in 2011, he starred in Gun of the Black Sun, a bizarre tale that revolves around an old Nazi pistol that may or may not have mystical powers and eventually falls into the hands of a media mogul who is set on restoring the Third Reich. In the few clips that are knocking about online, Wright actually turns in a performance that’s far more naturalistic (and arguably far better) than his more experienced co-stars; he also gets to faff around on one of his beloved Harley-Davidsons. Now that he’s announced he’ll be leaving Match of the Day at the end of the season, who knows, perhaps he’ll use his free time to embrace his thespian tendencies.

Ally McCoist

Robert Duvall. Michael Keaton. Brian Cox. Ally McCoist? In 2000, the Rangers legend appeared alongside a bunch of Hollywood heavyweights in A Shot at Glory, one of those American-made films that doesn’t quite get football culture. McCoist played Jackie McQuillan, a character branded “Scotland’s most notorious star soccer player” in the trailer’s grandiose voiceover. He’s signed to an ailing Scottish club attempting to reach their first ever cup final while their American owner tries to relocate them to Dublin (which sounds more like a plot point from Footballers’ Wives than one from an ostensibly realistic film). Apparently, McCoist still receives an annual Christmas card from Duvall, which is a nice touch.

Frank Leboeuf

After he retired from football, instead of following the well-trodden route of management or punditry gigs, Chelsea’s Frank Leboeuf hot-footed it to Hollywood, where he studied acting at the Los Angeles outpost of the Lee Strasberg Institute, the famous acting school where pupils learn “The Method” (he also joined the local Hollywood United amateur football team, playing alongside Vinnie Jones). He’s since acted in plays in his native France, and appeared in wartime drama Allies (promo photos feature him standing next to a beret-clad Matt Willis from Busted). His most “wait, is that actually him...?” role came in 2015’s The Theory of Everything, when he plays the Swiss doctor charged with telling Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane that the physicist might never speak again.

Robbie Keane

Long before Mrs Brown’s Boys was the inexplicably popular scourge of Christmas TV schedules, Brendan O’Carroll’s characters featured in a bunch of straight-to-video movies released in Ireland. Clearly, they somehow found their way onto the radar of Robbie Keane, who was so taken with them that he phoned up O’Carroll to ask for a part. And lo, O’Carroll did provide one: Keane makes a thankfully brief appearance as a Mormon missionary who attempts to convert Mrs Brown. He does so with a truly woeful American accent that defies all geography. According to O’Carroll, “Robbie often rings up and leaves me messages in a Mrs Brown voice”, too. Let’s hope those recordings never find their way into the public domain.