Lights, camera... action!
© AFP

When the time comes for a footballer to retire, the decision as to what to do next can be difficult. Understandably, many remain in the game, branching out into coaching, administration or the sports media, while others put their acquired skills to use in business, representation and consultancy.

One of the smallest cliques of all, however, are those who have sought out a completely different media to showcase their artistic talents and gone on to feature in TV and cinema. This week FIFA.com shines the spotlight on some of the famous footballers who have swapped the playing fields for the lights of film and TV studios.

Stars of the silver screen
Three of the games all-time greats, Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele and Diego Armando Maradona, have all shown themselves to be adept in front of the cameras. During his time at Real Madrid, the legendary former Argentina and Spain international starred in films like Once Pares de Botas (1954), La Saeta Rubia (1956) and La Batalla del Domingo (1963). The Blond Arrow always stuck to what he knew best, though, playing a footballer in all his cinematic work.

Almost two decades later, Pele, by then a familiar face on TV from his advertising work, was among a group of famous players and actors to feature in Escape to Victory (1981), a fictitious tale of a prisoner-of-war football team's attempt to escape captivity during the second world war. Among the glittering cast to star alongside O Rei in that John Huston-directed classic were the late former England captain, Bobby Moore, Argentinian Osvaldo Ardiles and established big-screen stars Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone.

It was a really nice experience. We spent a month filming in Hungary and had a blast, pure fun.
Oswaldo Ardiles on starring in Escape to Victory alongside Pele, Bobby Moore, Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone

"It was a really nice experience, recalled Ardiles, a member of the Albiceleste side that won the FIFA World Cup™ on home soil in 1978. "We spent a month filming in Hungary and had a blast, pure fun. Stallone? Well, let's just say his goalkeeping skills were on a par with my acting ones."

Diego Maradona had a star quality about him even before he embraced the visual media, having had monuments erected in his name, streets named after him and been the subject of numerous books and songs. Acclaimed Bosnian film director, Emir Kusturica, went one step further in 2008, making a documentary about the player's life entitled Maradona, which enjoyed a screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

But perhaps El Pelusa's finest achievement in the world of television was La Noche del 10 (2005), the weekly entertainment show he hosted in Argentina. Accompanied by former international team-mate and journalist Sergio Goycoechea, Maradona enthralled his audience with anecdotes from his playing days as well as interviews with the likes of Pele, Zinedine Zidane, singer Robbie Williams, boxer Mike Tyson and former Cuba president Fidel Castro.

"That collaboration with Diego was wonderful in so many ways. The challenges we set ourselves, how much interest it generated and what it meant in terms of experience. What can I tell you? Nothing would surprise me about him any more," Goycoechea told FIFA.com of the project that reunited the two members of the Albiceleste side that finished runners-up at Italy 1990.

Going the distance
Enjoyable though it was for the aforementioned protagonists, their screen performances were mainly fleeting. However, the same can not be said of the next duo, for whom acting is now a major part of their careers.

Frenchman Eric Cantona was perhaps Manchester United's most influential player in the early to mid-1990s, when he helped the Red Devils end their long league title drought with a string of championship successes. On retiring, the Marseille native turned his focus to beach soccer, a discipline in which he would eventually coach France to victory at the first FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in 2005. Competing for his passion, however, was the world of cinema, in which Cantona has forged a successful career following his film debut in Le bonheur est dans le pré (1995).

"I always wanted to do comedy, even when I was still playing," he told French weekly Première a few ago. As fate would have it, though, his most high-profile role - that of a 16th-century French ambassador to the English court in Elizabeth (1998), a film based on the life of Queen Elizabeth I -  was a different genre altogether. In his latest film Looking for Eric, due for release in June 2009, Cantona plays himself and is the target of football fanatic postman fan desperate for advice on how to rebuild his life.

But perhaps the most successful of all footballer-turned-actors has been Englishman Vinnie Jones. An intimidating midfielder during a playing career that took in spells at Wimbledon, Leeds United and Chelsea, among other sides, the often-controversial Jones found his hardman persona in demand by film makers on hanging up his boots.

First to take a chance on the Watford native was director Guy Ritchie, who cast him as 'Big Chris', a London gangster's muscle, in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). The role earned Jones critical acclaim and encouraged him to take up acting full time.

"Winning doesn't really matter as long as you win," Jones famously said during his playing days, and it is a maxim he has applied just as assiduously in his current metier. He collaborated with Ritchie again in Snatch (2000), where he joined an all-star cast that included Brad Pitt, Jason Statham and Benicio Del Toro.

Jones has also found himself a niche in Hollywood, starring most notably in Swordfish (2001) and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the third instalment of the comic-book sensation. From his Los Angeles home he still finds time for a little football, lining out in various benefit games for Hollywood United FC alongside other former pros like Alexi Lalas, Frank LeBouef and Eric Wynalda.

Fifteeen minutes of fame
Despite not enjoying as extensive a filmography as Cantona or Jones, a host of other ex-players have had their moment in the limelight. Paul Breitner, a world champion with West Germany in 1974, has appeared in several movies, including the 1976 spaghetti western Potato Fritz. The Argentinian Saul Linazo, whose playing career took in spells at Buenos Aires side Atlanta and Brazil's Juventus, enjoyed even greater fame as a star of Mexican soaps like Amor de Nadie (1990) and Acapulco, cuerpo y alma (1995). Linazo has featured in no fewer than ten shows all told, and is now a household name both in Mexico and his homeland.

Then there is legendary Brazilian Zico, who played not one but two roles in Uma Aventura do Zico, a children's film directed by Antonio Carlos da Fontoura. The 56-year-old showed customary versatility and commitment in playing himself and a dangerous clone, and claimed to have enjoyed the experience immensely.