REVIEW: “Football is the most important of all the unimportant things in life.”
It doesn’t have exactly the same ring to it as former Liverpool manager Bill Shankley’s comparison of “the beautiful game” to life and death, but, as an opening quote for Apple TV+’s new four-part look at the three days that rocked the game in April 2021, it sums up the sport’s place in society nicely.
Clearly designed for American audiences (who will be shocked to learn that European club football’s annual showpiece the Champion’s League Final generates three times the viewership of their beloved Super Bowl), Super League: The War for Football is an excellent primer on the shocking events that transpired when a group of powerful European clubs (including six English Premier League teams) attempted to form a breakaway league that could have potentially left hundreds of others facing financial ruin.
* Backlash to proposed European Super League a ‘PR nightmare’
* All six English clubs abandon breakaway European Super League
* European Super League is being created to ‘save soccer’, claims founding chairman
* Meet the ‘snake’ behind the breakaway European Super League dividing football
* Controversial European Super League proposals met with humour, sarcasm and anger
* European football split: 12 elite clubs launch breakaway Super League
What’s particularly impressive about director Jeff Zimbalist’s (whose previous footballing tales include Colombian tragedy The Two Escobars and a 2016 Pele biopic) take is the access he’s managed to get – and the candidness he manages to elicit – from key players on both sides.
Yes, there are the usual journalists, commentators and former players, but the extensive presence of UEFA boss Aleksander Ceferin (a Slovenian lawyer whose humanity and intelligence displayed here provides a stark contrast to Fifa head Gianni Infantino’s recent behavior and utterings at the Qatar World Cup) and the Super League’s chief architects – Real Madrid owner Florentino Perez and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli.
People in west London give their reaction to the announcement of the European Super League in April 2021 and the subsequent withdrawal of the ‘big six’ Premier League clubs.
All three are given their chance to plead their case, with Perez convinced a competition full of blockbuster matches is the only way to save the game and grow audiences in the modern world (Why have Bayern Munich and Liverpool only met two times in 65 years? , he laments) and Ceferin adamant that a “closed shop” would be “a spit in the face of all footballer lovers”.
As English Premier League (EPL) CEO Richard Masters puts it, what has always driven interest in the major European football leagues “is the jeopardy of the whole thing” – the result of their pyramid structures that promote and relegate teams each year based on their performances.
From former England striker Gary Lineker’s point-of-view, an elite European competition only open to a very few clubs would mean we’d never see a repeat of one of the greatest sporting stories of the past decade. His hometown club Leicester City won the EPL in 2016 with at odds of 5000-1 with a squad assembled on a shoestring budget – at least compared to some of their rivals.
For Perez, Agnelli and others, it’s the fear that one bad season – or the emergence of more Leicesters – could lead to financial ruin, that’s clearly driving their desire for a better way to guarantee a steady income, particularly at a time when players are demanding more for their services.
Indeed, one statistic highlighted here is particularly sobering – and enlightening. When Cristiano Ronaldo joined Manchester United for the first time in 2003, he was earning $47,000 a week. Fifteen years later, when he washed up at Agnelli’s Juventus, his seven-day wages were $510,000. It’s reflective of a wider change and greater inequality between clubs over the past two decades.
As one commentator puts it here, a club’s owner used to be the local businessman who’d made good, now they are a plaything for super rich oligarchs, sheiks and the world’s most well-capitalized hedge funds.
But despite all the debates about what’s the best way forward for football and the importance of “their club” to fans who attend the game live (when – and if – they can still afford it), Zimbalist is most concerned with the nefarious nature of the European Super League proposal.
Having set-up Ceferin and Agnelli as best friends (the former was even godfather to the latter’s daughter) – a duo who were working on a proposal to reform the Champions League – the director then portrays Agnelli’s subsequent “betrayal” as if it was something from a Hollywood thriller, or a Mario Puzo novel.
It’s a risky gambit, but, my goodness, it gets you hooked.
Super League: The War for Football is now available to stream on Apple TV+.