17 January 2024

From Becks to Ian Wright – these are the footballers who traded the pitch for the big screen

Plenty of on-pitch stars have stepped into the acting world.

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 arrived on Netflix last Friday (12th January), 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 realm of footballers turned actors.

But 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. 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 suppressed 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

In Guy Ritchie’s take on mediaeval England in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, all the 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 the tale of King Arthur: ensuring that all the hopefuls who reckon they have a shot at pulling the sword from the stone are standing in an orderly queue. King Arthur is his second foray into the Ritchie-verse, after an even briefer cameo as a 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.

Warner Bros. / King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

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. In an age where there’s a bootleg copy of pretty much everything lurking on the internet, it’s still impossible to track down Hero to Zero online.

Vinnie Jones 

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 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 villainous 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. 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 even reunite with Ritchie for Netflix’s spin off series of The Gentleman.

PolyGram / Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Pelé

In addition to, you know, being one of the greatest footballers of all time, Pelé was a man of the arts: 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 agreed to play a match against a German team.

Paramount / Escape to Victory

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.. 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 acting tendencies.

Eric Cantona

Footballers tend to throw themselves into acting with wildly varying scales of commitment. On the seriously low-effort 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 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 Utd fan.

Film 4 / Looking for Eric

Zlatan Ibrahimović

In Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom, Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimović plays a Roman warrior called Caius Antivirus. Just let that sink in: Antivirus.anyway, it’s the first clue that Ibrahimović’s role isn’t exactly going to be nuanced and awards-worthy. 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 luxurious black wig and some eyeliner to play an ancient Egyptian with incredible soccer skills in Asterix at the Olympic Games.

  • Writer Chris Saunders
  • Banner Image Credit Paramount / Escape to Victory

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