Community, cash grabs and the rise of football documentaries

A still from 'Sunderland 'Til I Die'
A still from 'Sunderland 'Til I Die'

Summary

There has been a glut of football documentaries of late on the inner workings of clubs, teams and players. Does the genre rise above fan service?

“I am 56 today," says Jose Mourinho. “And yesterday…yesterday, I was 20. Today I’m 56. Time flies." Mourinho, one of the finest football managers of the past two decades, prone to swinging wildly between irresistible charisma and curmudgeonly snark, is lecturing his Tottenham Hotspur player Dele Alli in the documentary series All Or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur (2020). The video clip of this conversation spread like wildfire on the internet. It further cemented the legend of Mourinho, wise old cat, who’d caught on that Dele Alli, a remarkable young talent with the world at his feet, had lost his way. He was wasting away the enormous potential he’d been blessed with. Alli would come to regret his actions later, warned Mourinho with paternal concern. Youth, wasted on the young.

Since 2018, we’ve seen a flurry of football documentary series being released — far more than the world needs, arguably — on streaming platforms. And they’re all roughly the same, aren’t they? They generally follow a European club from one of the big leagues or players who’ve crossed over into pop culture fame. You get the big roving shots of empty stadiums and goals nets. Clips of local news networks where furious anchors demand sackings. Gentle piano plonks build up to a triumphant crescendo. The hair-raising slow-mo shots, the elevated commentary in crisp Brit accents, anxious fans watching on. Familiar platitudes and empty cliches trotted out earnestly by talking heads: about being down and out, written off by the haters, us against the world. And then… the miracle, minor as it may well be. The underdog wins, the fairytale comes to life, the erratic genius was right all along. The romance lives on! Plus ca change.

And yet they fly off the shelves (or whatever the digital equivalent is). The Spurs documentary, which followed All Or Nothing: Manchester City (2018) became a big hit among fans at the time, craving football during lockdown. Similar ones on Arsenal (2022), Brazil (2020), and All Or Nothing: German National Team in Qatar (2023) were all subjected to much scrutiny and discussion. In fact, a report in Kicker even suggested that the German coach wasn’t considered for a job at the prestigious club Bayern Munich because of how he came across in the documentary. That’s just how football fans are. They’re massive dorks greedy for any and all football content. (I’m allowed to say it, being one myself.)

The 24/7 culture of football

The concept of diminishing returns does not exist in the make-believe world that fans reside in. It’s a full-time vocation, with a 24/7 culture of games, analysis, news, rumours, gossip, scandal, online flame wars, and all manner of assorted peripherals feeding the collective delusions of the average fanbase. They — we — are hooked to the dopamine rush of something happening.

Currently, there’s a film in the works about the famous Liverpool Football Club, whose celebrated manager, Jurgen Klopp, announced midway through last season that he’s stepping down. Given the incredible highs Klopp provided to the passionate and long-suffering (and very vocal) Liverpool fans over the past many years, this documentary is bound to get significant coverage. These series provide fans with an insight into the behind-the-scenes functioning of their favourite clubs. There was the film about David Beckham (Beckham, 2023), by Fisher Stevens (Succession), now associated with that meme of Beckham playfully mocking his wife’s denial of her class privilege.

A still from 'All Or Nothing: Arsenal'
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A still from 'All Or Nothing: Arsenal'

Last month, 99 released, a three-part series on Manchester United’s astonishing treble win under the great Sir Alex Ferguson. One might reasonably assume that this particular well had run dry, given the whopping coverage bequeathed to all things Manchester United. One might be mistaken though; this writer inhaled all three parts in one single sitting. I knew almost everything that was going to happen — I’ve by-hearted it over the years — and yet it managed to surprise, thrill, and stun me. The formula for sports documentaries, manipulative and exploitative as it may be, has heart.

Why are they so popular?

So much of it is a depiction of a manufactured truth or, at least, a sanitised version of the truth. We see the madness on the pitch and in all the soap-operatic storylines running alongside each year, but these documentaries provide a peek behind the curtain. The method. Does Brendan Rodgers, former Liverpool coach, have a giant portrait of himself hung up in his house (Being: Liverpool, 2012)? What was the reaction, behind closed doors, when one of the best players in the world at the time, Luis Figo, ditched his club, Barcelona, for their bitter rivals to the death, Real Madrid, as shown in Luis Figo: The Transfer That Changed Football (2022)? The Catalan fans threw a dead pig’s head at him on the pitch, so it was probably quite bad. Why were the wives of Wayne Rooney and Jamie Vardy feuding? Coleen Rooney: The Real Wagatha Story (2023) had it all: footballer wives, gossip leaks, amateur sleuthing. Why the hell — SPOILER — did Alex Ferguson offer his resignation midseason in ’99? The stories within football are vast and expansive, and these films try to capture each one in freeze frame.

Take the case of Mikel Arteta, the young Arsenal coach, who had a game coming up against Liverpool at the famously hostile Anfield stadium, shown in All Or Nothing: Arsenal (2022). So he rolled giant speakers on to the training ground in the days ahead and played the Anfield anthem to prep the players. Of course, Arsenal got battered by four goals to nothing; Arteta himself lost his head and picked a fight with the opposing coaching staff, which riled up the crowd. It became a running joke for a while until, soon enough, his methods started to pay off. Today, Arsenal are a formidable outfit; and that moment, previously written off as the nutty concoction of a coach well out of his depth, has been recontextualised as an early step in the evolution of this exciting team.

The insights that sneak through

Last year, Dele Alli spoke solemnly on a podcast about how his career had stalled in the past few years. He revealed details of a troubled childhood, as well as severe mental health and substance abuse issues weighing him down. It was a frank and heartbreaking admission. Back when the clip with Mourinho had first surfaced, Alli became an object of ridicule. Fans were critical of him (in that nasty, abusive way sports fans generally are) for being this jet-setting millionaire phoning it in. These revelations put that conversation, and his subsequent struggles, in a poignant new light.

Sure, we can accept that these documentaries are meant for setting a narrative and myth-making. They’re heavily stage-managed. Given the ridiculous amounts of money riding on football, with global unicorn business and even literal nation states are all major stakeholders, clubs and organisations will exercise stringent control over what can be aired. A lot of the unsavoury stuff that happens in the game — the crimes and coverups, the corruption, the allegations of cheating and doping and such — is neatly expunged. But every now and then, something raw and real sneaks through.

The Dele Alli disclosure served as a reminder that behind the glitz and professionally choreographed theatre production of modern football exists a cast of vulnerable human beings with very real feelings and emotions. Of regular ordinary people facing their own demons in full public glare. The soul of the game, per many commentators, may be lost in the current haze of big money, Instagram fame, corporate takeovers, and oil states conducting widespread ‘sportswashing’ via football.

The community institutions at the heart of football

But then you watch Take Us Home: Leeds United (2019), where a football-obsessed city that had been suffering for years in the lower leagues, from the second division to even the third division, finally gets their messiah in the form of a temperamental, erratic South American, Marcelo Bielsa, with a reputation for fireworks. How it galvanises all of Leeds, and the unexpected and indelible bond that forms between man and city. The heartbreak of the first season, followed by the second season’s heroics, as they finally return to the English Premier League (only to get relegated again two years later). Or something like the series Welcome To Wrexham — in a way, the Ted Lasso of football documentaries where two Hollywood bigwigs take over a tiny club in Wales, Wrexham AFC, one of the oldest in the world, as part-vanity project, part-audacious gambit — where you begin to understand the abstract, community value of sport. Actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney may have their reasons for the takeover, and we can debate those endlessly, but the undeniable jolt it gave to the fans of Wrexham puts it all in perspective. The club had been languishing in non-league football (the leagues below the lowest leagues), and the takeover has them slowly climbing up the ladder).

A still from 'Welcome To Wrexham'
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A still from 'Welcome To Wrexham'

A lot of these documentaries appeal to the sizable portion of football fans thirsting for hidden camera footage and candid arguments over formations. But they rarely crossover into the non-football community, in the way that a Drive To Survive (2019) and The Last Dance (2020), documentaries on Formula 1 and basketball, did. The football world is self-contained and massive, and new audiences can be put off by some of its more fractious elements. Welcome To Wrexham may be one such that did gather a broader fanbase — the barrier to entry was lowered thanks to familiar Hollywood names, and the story itself, of a town in anguish at their team’s decline, slowly getting its spirit back.

These clubs are cultural institutions that unite small towns and cities. A series like the exceptional Sunderland ‘Til I Die (2018) looks at the English club Sunderland AFC, relegated from the Premier League and playing one division below. It captures the emotional connect, pretty much bypassing on-pitch action and instead spending time on the greater meaning of it all. At its purest, football has a spiritual meaning for the fans, the players, the many rungs of people involved in it.

So there’s no doubt a certain manipulative angle exists behind the surfeit of these football documentaries. The success of other sporting documentaries shows how this stuff can be wildly successful. The occasional cash grab, thus, is inevitable. And they’re pandering to fans, capitalising on their obsessive desire for wall-to-wall coverage and a voyeuristic glimpse of the inner workings underpinning match days. Like with comic book/fantasy films, remakes, adaptations, the churn has hit the nonfiction sport documentary market too, perhaps. And as streaming companies slowly move into the live sport market, there’s likely some link between the increasing number of documentaries catering to fans, buttering them up and making them familiar with the interface.

But while cynicism has its rightful place, let’s not forget the goosebumps. You can tire of it in a philosophical sense, but the visceral impact of it is irresistible. The thrill of watching it all unfold; of living through all those moments again, this time with fancy music and cool camera angles. These are stories of heroism and vulnerability and heartbreak, of the incredible, almost superhuman feats that footballers are capable of and the adversities and challenges in their paths. The outside enemies and the inner squabbles. The mental demons and the unceasing quest for excellence. The endless hours of training and the divine gifts that drive them. And the infinite joy they bring to the fans.

Also read: T20 World Cup: What are the drop-in pitches being used in the US?

 

 

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