Commentary

Is this really what a soccer club's like? Assessing the current wave of 'behind-the-scenes' documentaries

What is a soccer club like behind the scenes? Apparently, this is a pressing question among the public, which might explain why no less than three soccer documentary series are currently vying for your attention. All boast the same format -- following a specific team throughout the 2017-18 season, with the professed aim of showing us what really happens day-to-day inside a professional sports organization.

It's not a new idea by any means, and the approach is hobbled by two obvious drawbacks. First, we all know how that season ended for the three teams involved -- Juventus, Manchester City and Sunderland. Second, a team of movie-makers allowed in to record the daily life of a soccer club is going to be compromised by that very access. It's the same problem that faces any journalist wanting to cover sport, politics or entertainment. Pose difficult questions, and suddenly that access is denied. So the more probing, difficult questions tend to remain unasked.

In order to save you some time, here's a rundown of the three documentaries, and whether or not they're worth watching.

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First Team: Juventus, Netflix

We are promised a "great adventure," following a team that's just lifted the Italian title six times in a row. By the end of episode 1, Juve has won all of its first half dozen games and is already on target to land a seventh consecutive scudetto. So the narrator injects fake drama by telling us repeatedly that what the Italian champions really crave is the Champions League title. Unfortunately, we know how that ends too.

Episode 1 is a master-class in Public Relations movie-making. The message of tradition and unity is hammered home, while nothing of interest is said. "It's very difficult to play for Juventus," says former star Pavel Nedved. "Only a few can manage it." Bad news for all those Rec players who thought they could just buy a place on the team. Meanwhile, midfielder Claudio Marchisio shows us the kit-room and the cleats hanging on the wall. Yes, viewers, at a soccer club there's an equipment room where they ... keep the equipment.

Stay tuned for highlights of another easy home win and a narrator telling you that despite maximum points from the opening six games, "in football there's nothing certain." Maybe, but there's plenty that's very predictable, like Juve becoming champion again. Verdict: 1/10. Great if your 6-year-old's a Juventus fan or if you really, really love slow-motion shots of anything at all. Even players getting off a bus.

Manchester City: All Or Nothing, Amazon Prime

Actor Ben Kingsley was no doubt handsomely rewarded for narrating in a slow, intense voice that this is "a never-before-seen look inside the world of professional football." Sounding like a public warning for an imminent nuclear war, he trawls out monstrous clichés about the sport being "a religion," and that England's been "the home of football for a century and a half." Yes, England - perennial world champions and tactical innovators.

It's a bit like having Orson Welles narrate “Arthur Goes to School,” except it's twice as patronizing. The players are livelier than their Juventus counterparts, and at least in Man City's boot-room we get to see the steamer (for stiff cleats) and the stretcher (for ill-fitting ones). Cool! There's nothing below the surface, though. Sergio Agüero shows us his luxury flat and tells us that his infant son comes over from Argentina one week a month. The rest of the time, the striker's alone, watching action and mafia movies in his home-cinema, or hanging out with David De Gea. Is he lonely? Is he homesick? Nobody asks.

It's another PR job, revolving around the cult of Coach Pep Guardiola. Pep moves magnets around a tactics board at high speed, and explains his philosophy at a rate of around 10 words a second. Everyone nods in agreement. In a rare moment of insight, Guardiola tells the camera that he sometimes acts as if he knows the answers even when he doesn't, to give the players confidence. It's easy to suspect that everyone's bluffing here -- Pep's demonstrating the very obvious, or possibly babbling nonsense while everyone else is pretending to understand what on earth he's on about.

By the end of episode 2, City is eleven points clear at the top of the standings. Kingsley's portentous narrative has by this point become both an annoyance and, like the series itself, a terrific drag. We know City will celebrate becoming champions, and that no doubt they will be disappointed at being eliminated from the Champions League. Needless to say, we hear nothing about soccer clubs being owned by a totalitarian state, or the flouting of UEFA Financial Fair Play Rules. Verdict: 3/10. I'd rather watch “Arthur Goes To School,” with or without Orson Welles.

Sunderland Til I Die, Netflix

A thankful contrast to the world of serial wins and Champions League glamour, the makers of this series presumably hoped to follow Sunderland as they made an immediate return to the Premier League following relegation in 2017. They got something altogether more interesting as the team imploded and dropped into England's third tier instead.

This is a more realistic tale of struggle, survival, limited cash and mundane disappointment. It relies a lot on the facial expressions and heated slander of the fans, even if the backdrop of Sunderland as a de-industrialized town (where soccer, of course, means "everything") is laid on thick with a rhetorical trowel. As a viewer, though, you may feel guilty at watching a year-long car crash, and eventually become as ground down by the sequence of defeats as the fans, players and the club's stoical staff.

There's also a lack of analysis about why the team is losing. Unlike the Manchester City crew, the cameras have no access to the team-talks or the locker room. The general feeling seems to be that if the lads can just win a couple of games, everything will be fine. When Coach Simon Grayson is fired at the end of November, we do not get to hear his thoughts. When new coach Chris Coleman wins two successive games just before Christmas, everyone's immediately convinced the club's troubles are over and it's suddenly all smiles under the festive lights.

It's not "warts and all" (doors are often closed on the cameras), but by necessity we see the cuts and blemishes. The overall cinematic approach is imaginative in comparison to the brand-led Juve and Man. City efforts, and the fans are presented as people, not mere grinning cheerleaders to be milked of their cash. Verdict: 7/10. Compelling enough that, after the first four episodes, I wanted to watch the final four. The only one of the three series to halfway make it 'behind the scenes.’

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

2 comments about "Is this really what a soccer club's like? Assessing the current wave of 'behind-the-scenes' documentaries".
  1. R2 Dad, January 22, 2019 at 12:43 a.m.

    Thank you; enjoyed the thoughtful evisceration.

  2. Rick Golden, January 22, 2019 at 7:11 a.m.

    I have watched the entire Sunderland and Man City series. I agree Sunderland is much more compelling and realistic. Man City had too much creative control. There is some honesty and awareness when Liverpool Knick them out, but overall too bland. If Juve is even worse I don’t think I will be watching that.

    i recommend watching the Boca Juniors documentary. It goes pretty in depth on some of the players, taking you into their homes and interviews with the families. The game footage is good and the training sessions have full access too.

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