It’s World War II in occupied France and many former professional footballers have put their careers on hold to serve their countries. For the Allies, former West Ham United and England player John Colby (Michael Caine), now held in a POW camp, keeps himself occupied by coaching players in the camp’s league system. He’s approached by football-loving Major Karl von Steiner (Max von Sydow) with a proposal: How about putting together an Allied team to play an exhibition match against the German national side?
Colby is reluctant but the offer is too tempting to pass up, especially since it means better quarters, rations, and proper football kits for him and the team. He has a few handy players at his disposal; English midfielder Terry Brady (Bobby Moore), tricky playmaker Carlos Rey (Osvaldo Ardiles), and Luis Fernandez (Pelé), who learned to play on the mean streets of Trinidad (Brazil hadn’t entered the conflict at the time the film is set). He’s less enthused by the rough-and-tumble Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone), who wants in on the team to make his escape attempt easier.
The match soon blows up into something massive. Scheduled to play in front of a capacity crowd near Paris, Von Steiner’s superiors see it as a propaganda exercise to demonstrate the superiority of the Nazi regime, while Colby’s Commanding Officer wants him to use the game as a chance to escape with the whole team.
When kickoff arrives, Colby’s team finds themselves battling against a dirty team assisted by a heavily biased referee. They are losing 4-1 by the break, but no matter; the French Resistance have tunneled into their dressing room so they can make their getaway. But who wants to escape when there is a match to win… or draw, as the case may be?