The film starts with Mike Bassett (Tomlinson) winning a trophy with Norwich City. During the open top bus party, the bus takes a wrong turning and the team have to endure a very cold, lengthly detour up the A11.
After the opening titles, the news comes in that England manager Phil Cope has had a heart attack, and a meeting takes place in which the members of the Football Association board must find a new manager to take them into the World Cup finals in Brazil. They are faced with problems in that the most successful Premier League manager is Scottish, the second most successful is too much of a "bigmouth" for the F.A.'s liking despite otherwise seeming perfect for the role, and all the other English managers in the Premier League come up with an increasingly ridiculous set of excuses to turn down the job. Still wanting to appoint an English manager, they look to the league below, Division One.
As the press gather at Mike's house, he has no idea that they are there and unwittingly reveals himself (in polite terms) to them. As he speaks to them and says that he is not the England manager, his son Jason appears saying "Dad, you've got the England job." Despite some recent bad results that caused the press to turn aggressively on Phil Cope, England are still theoretically in a strong position to qualify, and can make sure of it with either a single victory or avoiding defeat in their three remaining games.
At his first meeting at Lancaster Gate (the home of English football) he is informed that he is allowed to pick his own assistant and coach. He is told this by Geoffrey Lightfoot, who also tells him "Sir Ted would love to see you but Tuesday is his dialysis day". He decides to appoint two of his old friends who are out of footballing work. Firstly he appoints Dave Dodds, a weak-willed coach who was sacked by Nottingham Forest, and then Lonnie Urquhart (who has now become a second hand car salesman) as his assistant manager. His players include the thuggish Gary Wackett, who is the team captain, Rufus Smalls, a once-prolific striker who hasn't scored in 2 years, Danny and Dino, an unrelated pair who always act like brothers, Harpsey, a playboy midfielder who is slavishly devoted to his pop star wife, and Alan Massey, a young, capable player who is haunted by the fact that he's the only player in the squad with no nickname.
Bassett's next task is to bring back an England hero to the team. He believes that this lad can win us the cup. The problem is, this lad (Kevin `Tonka` Tonkinson) has developed a huge drinking problem. He brings him back into the team and at his first game against Poland, Tonkinson scores the first goal. But two late Polish goals give Bassett a defeat in his first game.
To improve the fitness and skills of the squad, Bassett takes the team to a sports science centre. Unfortunately their questionable methods leave virtually the entire squad out with injuries, forcing Mike to select a new squad. When he makes his squad selection however, a mix-up stemming from him writing the team sheet on the back of a pack of "Benson & Hedges" cigarettes results in a pair of Third Division no-hopers - the 46 year-old Ron Benson and the badly out of shape Tony Hedges - being added to the squad for their next match against group leaders Belgium. The whole mess results in England being thrashed 3-0.
The other results on that day mean that Belgium have qualified for certain, and Turkey have moved ahead of England with a better goal difference. England are left needing Turkey not to win, or needing to avoid defeat themselves and hope for the unlikely situation to Turkey being beaten by Luxembourg, who have never won a competitive international game. Adding to Bassett's problems, his relationship with his wife Karine is deteriorating under the stress, and Tonka is arrested for drink-driving at over four times the alcohol limit. Mike threatens to drop him, but later forgives him.
England's final group match is against Slovakia, and while they hold out against the Slovakian strikers, England never threaten the net. England win a penalty near the end of the match however, which gives them a chance to qualify. Mike decides that the chance is just what Smalls needs to restore his goalscoring confidence, and sends him up to take the penalty... which Smalls promptly sends over the bar and into the crowd. The match ends 0-0, seemingly spelling the end for England's qualifying hopes, but in the dressing room afterwards it turns out that Luxembourg have beaten Turkey 2-0, meaning that England qualify for the World Cup after all.
Mike suddenly goes from villain to hero overnight, and the following year England head to Brazil with a newfound optimism. An early sign of things to come appears right at the airport, as the Scotland team arrives; the English players mock the poor World Cup record of their Scottish counterparts, while the Scotland squad remind England that they're in the same group as their old enemies, Argentina, who knocked them out of the World Cup in 1986 and 1998. Just after that, the Ireland squad (most of whom are actually English, but allowed to play for Ireland due to a technicality) arrive, and one particularly mouthy player starts hurling anti-Protestant abuse at the English and Scottish squads. A Scottish player responds with some anti-Catholic insults, but offends one of his own squad who is a Catholic, and this sets off a massive brawl involving all three squads, resulting in the near-destruction of the airport lobby.
The optimism around England's campaign soon evaporates after a 0-0 draw with Egypt, in which England fail to even so much as make a shot on goal. Afterwards, some supporters confront Bassett and make some intelligent suggestions on how England can improve their game, but Mike simply tells them to "fuck off," lowering his standing with the supporters even further. Things get even worse when Gary Wackett is arrested for taking part in hooliganism and assaulting police officers. Back in England, things are no better, as Mike's son gets his eyebrows shaved off by some school bullies for his association with his father.
Needing a result against Mexico, Bassett opts to change to an unusual new formation, and training for the match is hindered when it's discovered that Lonnie has accidentally driven off to a nearby city with all the England camp's footballs, forcing the squad into the bizarre situation of having to train with imaginary footballs. Lacking a captain, proper training and any idea how to work with Mike's new formation, England end up 2-0 down at half-time against Mexico, which results in Mike giving a profanity-laced team talk, and nearly even injuring his goalkeeper by throwing some equipment at him in a fit of anger. England lose 4-0, one of their worst-ever results.
Things continue to get worse, as Bassett accuses the press of being "wankers" and storms out of a press conference after they predict England won't win their remaining game against Argentina. Then, Tonka gets caught sneaking a "woman" (who, unbeknownst to him, is a transvestite) into his room, and is dropped from the team again. At a team meeting, Lonnie tries to cheer the lads up by praising Ramirez, the Mexican player who got most of their goals, but this only annoys Mike into going on a rant against his assistant. Lonnie takes Mike's accusations of being useless and being a racist on the chin, but when Mike accuses him of knowingly selling bad cars, Lonnie snaps and punches Mike to the floor before quitting his position.
Afterwards, Mike and Tonka apologize to each other. Mike agrees to restore Tonka to the team, and Tonka offers him a drink to cheer up. Mike goes way beyond the small drink Tonka initially offered however, and a bad reaction with some anti-depressants he's taking results in him dancing on the hotel bar in his underwear. The local paparazzi get photos of the incident, which soon becomes a full-blown national scandal.
Bassett's last opportunity at saving his job is by beating Argentina - despite the fact that Argentina have drawn one and won one game and have a far better goal difference, England could still beat them into the knock-out stages, since World Cup group placings are decided on head-to-head results and not goal difference. He manages to plea to the press by reciting a Kipling poem and at the game his team - led by new captain Alan "Skipper" Massey, who now finally has a nickname of his own - give their all.
The match is nearing full time and with the score still 0-0, Bassett decides to give the dice a last throw and send on Kevin Tonkinson. He immediately scores a very controversial goal. Against Argentina though, nothing is controversial for the English. This sends England through to the knockout stages, where they overcome France before exiting at the hands of Brazil in the semi finals. The film ends with Bassett declaring he is staying for four more years.