“For Mancunians, it’s a religion”

Hearing Ben Kingsley half-heartedly narrate those words in the All or Nothing: Manchester City documentary series goes some way to explaining why football has always had a tricky history with film.

When it’s in the form of fiction, it’s seemingly impossible to recreate the authenticity and realism of a football match.

There are numerous pitfalls for Hollywood to stumble down when it comes to creating films about football. Bend it like Beckham and Mike Bassett arguably represent the best efforts, with an affectionate mention for There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble (’90s kids will know). But the reality is that despite football being the most-played and best-supported sport in the world, there is a distinct lack of fictional football films.

It’s documentaries that remain the ultimate form of football on film, but even that comes with potential issues. As displayed by Sir Ben Kingsley, capturing the passion of the game without sounding cheesy or resorting to tired clichés can be difficult.

There has, however, been a bit of a boom of football documentaries in recent years. From underseen and compelling gems like Next Goal Wins and Les Bleus: Une Autre Histoire de France, to more celebrated films such as One Night in Turin and Planet FIFA. And most recently, Asif Kapadia’s chronicle of Diego Maradona received critical acclaim as well as a BAFTA nomination.

The Diego Maradona film is the latest in a surge of mainstream football documentaries since 2018. A trend that clubs around the world seemed to have cottoned on to, shifting the more common version of the football documentary onto streaming networks like Amazon Prime and Netflix.

As film critic Patrick Gamble (who has had work published in outlets such as Little White Lies, Sight & Sound and The Skinny) believes, this isn’t a coincidence:

“What has changed is the audience these documentaries are aimed at – instead of purely being produced to fill the shelves of the club store, they’re being greenlit before the season has even started; and produced with a wider (noticeably more international) audience in mind. It’s part of a much more worrying trend of clubs being more concerned with diversifying their media offering than getting results on the pitch; exploiting their huge brand potential with sanitised, club-controlled content. The result is Football teams are now thinking of themselves as global entertainment and media properties, rather than community-focused clubs.”

Since the beginning of 2018, there has been an onslaught of docu-series specifically focusing on clubs, rather than tournaments or competitions. First came the Netflix series First Team: Juventus, a two-part series about the Bianconeri’s 2017-18 season, which was followed by the acclaimed Sunderland ‘Til I Die series, the second series of which is hitting Netflix in April.

Then 2019 saw the trend continue in earnest. Borussia Dortmund and Leeds United both produced behind-the-scenes looks at their respective clubs, while the All or Nothing machine turned their attention to the rounder, less American version of football, first producing one focused on Manchester City and also financing the recent All or Nothing: Brazil, and upcoming (hotly anticipated) Tottenham version.

There have been also numerous docs focusing on individual players with Toni Kroos, the aforementioned Diego Maradona, Steven Gerrard, Antoine Griezmann and Sergio Ramos all getting the documentary treatment.

Alongside these have been the outliers, such as Six Dreams (a look at six different footballers plying their trade in La Liga in Spain), The Class of ’92 and Amazon Prime’s mixed bag of a series titled This is Football. BT Sport has also been producing one-off specials such as No Hunger in Paradise and State of Play, all focusing on different aspects of modern-day football.

There have been iterations of these documentaries down the years, think of all the season reviews and ‘Best of’ DVDs your club has churned out down the years.

But what separates these newer, increasingly better-produced series from the season reviews that used to be stocked in your local club store, is the audience.

As Gamble alluded to, there is a correlation between the money received from leagues and the “diversification” of their marketing techniques. In a recent quarterly conference call with Manchester United shareholders, vice-chairman Ed Woodward was on record saying, “playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business.”

A typically Ed Woodward thing to say, and a quick visit to Manchester United’s website shows that they have an extraordinary 25 global sponsor partners, and this doesn’t count local sponsorship deals or even the global noodle partner so many made jokes about. Couple Woodward’s quotes with the club’s Managing Director Richard Arnold interview with Sports Pro Media and you begin to catch a glimpse into how the modern football club operates:

We continue to be successful in segmenting and defining new previously unexplored [sponsorship] categories in terms of the work we’re doing…”

He continued, “… if you look at soft drinks, consumer electronics, for example as well as a number of the technology and software verticals, there continues to be a big opportunity in open existing categories.”

Arnold described United’s marketing tactics as ‘bullish’, while expressing the belief that they are industry leaders when it comes to securing marketing and sponsorship deals, and it is hard to disagree with him. Despite failing to reach the heights set by the Alex Ferguson dynasty since 2013, the club posted record revenues of £627.1 million for the 2018/19 financial year, largely down to their sponsorships and marketing activities.

These colossal figures also explain why we haven’t seen a Manchester United documentary, because to put it frankly – they don’t need to.

Even when a documentary is bankrolled by elite, mega-rich clubs, documentaries exist to serve a purpose. Writing in the Hollywood Reporter in 2017, Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director of the International Documentary Association, wrote that:

Documentary film is a form that allows us to walk in another’s shoes, to build a sense of shared humanity, that gives voice to the marginalized and the scorned, that strives to hold those in power to account.”

The purpose of documentaries in the world of football has been to show different angles to already well-known stories, think of the tortured soul laid bare in Diego Maradona or the collective heartache felt by a nation in One Night in Turin, or alternatively to highlight the corruption we all know lies at the heart of the sport, think of Planet FIFA.

But to see clubs welcome documentary makers behind the rope with welcome arms is a curious decision because, as Gwilym Mumford so eloquently put it for the Guardian, it is a medium where “reputations, rather than enhanced, are destroyed.”

Look at the 2012 series Being Liverpool, where the then manager Brendan Rodgers came across as a comedic figure to be laughed at, and just ask Peter Taylor, Barry Fry and in particular John Sitton what taking part in all-access documentaries did for their careers. Many of the clubs who have been churning out these docs in recent years have a lot more to lose.

Manchester City, for example, are a club that has become seemingly impossible to divorce their success in the past decade from their owners, and with good reason. In 2008 City were taken over by the billionaire Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan. It is common knowledge that Sheikh Mansour is a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi and also serves as the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates.

The media scrutiny of his ownership intensified after the Football Leaks investigation by Der Spiegel revealed that a sponsorships deal had been agreed with Arabtec, one of the largest construction companies in the UAE that has been repeatedly criticised for its negligent treatment of its migrant workers, leading to the Human Rights Watch describing Sheikh Mansour’s ownership of Manchester City as, “One of football’s most brazen attempts to ‘sportswash’ a country’s deeply tarnished image.”

So of course, this isn’t a topic touched upon at all in the All or Nothing: Manchester City series.

It’s an interesting series that offers some serious insights into the world of sport physiotherapy and just how incredibly intense a manager Pep Guardiola really is. Watching the Catalan genius move little markers across a whiteboard while exclaiming “don’t do this, do this!” to nonplussed looking players remains engrossing. Esquire compared him to David Brent and in some instances, you can see why. Other occasions it’s clear that games are won by his sheer will to succeed propelling his players forward. Perhaps the most affecting aspect of the series is the focus on non-British players and the stark loneliness some players can feel spending so much time in a cold country, so far from home without their family. The short pause after Sergio Aguero tells the documentary makers that “but most of the time I’m on my own” is genuinely touching.

The Manchester City series is interesting but is made to feel like glossy, soft propaganda by the glaring omission of any discussion about their owners. In fact, the documentary heralds the arrival of the Abu Dhabi as the turning point in City’s history. While true, it feels negligent.

What does it then do to a documentary, something that exists to tell truths and expose facts, when common and extremely pertinent information is omitted?

Patrick Gamble believes this damages the credibility of the work, but arguably doesn’t matter much to those watching:

You don’t see Gary Lineker or Gary Neville discussing last season’s Manchester City team with a Brian Clough style ‘throw your medals in the bin because you won them by cheating’. Weirdly, despite the popularity of football being intrinsically linked to the industrialisation of Britain and the majority of teams emerging from working-class communities and factory worker teams, football remains curiously politically neutral.”

“The erasure of Sheikh Mansour’s human right’s record from the Manchester City documentary damages its credibility as a film, I don’t think the majority of fans and viewers really care. Sadly a few negative reviews from the Guardian and the Times are easily negated with some staged footage of Aguero visiting a local children’s hospital.”

And this is maybe the most crucial aspect behind the rise in documentaries. It’s about controlling the story, grasping the narrative with both hands to provide an opportunity to market yourself however you want. In many cases narrative is portrayed in a way that many would dispute, but who can argue when it’s the clubs that are the ones driving the story?

In another Amazon Prime series, Leeds United are the focus. Take Us Home is a dramatic and deliciously well-shot series but suffers from a lack of real ‘behind-the-scenes’ content. It’s also difficult to watch the first 20 minutes of the series, which focuses almost exclusively on the Italian businessman who owns the club, Andrea Radrizaani, without guffawing cynically.

As Max Rushden said in the Guardian:

By the time the leader of Leeds city council explains what a good owner he is, you start to wonder why everyone is trying to convince you of the virtues of a man you had previously spent very little time considering.”

Radrizzani’s own production company Eleven Studios was the driving force and financial backers behind the series and he features regularly. The opening titles even finish on a slickly produced image of Radriazzani sitting underneath the title “Take us Home”, it’s clear who is doing the driving here, and it’s not the rarely seen Marcelo Bielsa.

Even the undisputed most interesting series of them all, Sunderland ‘Til I Die, was greenlit to document what was supposed to be a successful return to the Premier League for the North East club and endear the fans to the hated owners.

Instead what we got was a tumble down the rabbit hole of what can happen when a club is so shambolically run mixed in with an accidental look at just how important football is to the working class in Britain. It makes for an enthralling, if at times disconcerting watch.

In a similar vein, Inside Borussia Dortmund was produced to capitalise on what looked to be a historic season for the club. There are intriguing moments where we see the brain trust of Dortmund deliberate on transfers and we see glimpses into the humans behind the machines and how they coped with the aftermath of the bomb attack on the Dortmund bus. The subsequent axing of players suffering from possible PTSD serves to highlight the ruthless nature of elite-level clubs. It might not have been what Chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke meant to say, but it is kind of what happened.

The documentaries have their pros and cons, but all were seemingly created to serve a narrative purpose. Dortmund and Sunderland both tried and failed to capture success that remains frustratingly out of their grasp whilst the Leeds doc is there to portray the owner as the visionary he seems so desperate to be perceived as.

The Manchester City series is maybe the odd one out, a curious portrayal of the club as narrator that allows them to reinforce the ‘us against the world’ mindset Pep and the club have adopted in recent years. After Guardiola had secured City’s second title in two seasons and their fourth Premier League triumph overall, he was quoted as saying “For many people, the media, they expected the Liverpool do it in the end, but we are there. So, I am sorry for the people that it is in our hands.” A bizarre comment considering the financial backing and position in world football, already champions of England multiple times before Pep’s arrival. Not exactly new kids on the block.

And so, it is hard not to look at the All or Nothing series as another marketing tactic. Another way of Manchester City cornering the market and competing with their old rivals Manchester United for clicks, revenue, data and the attraction of new fans.

Patrick Gamble hits the nail on the head when he says:

You can make an argument that any film has the potential to be used as propaganda, and all documentaries are a creative treatment of actuality, but there’s no denying these films are being used as a form of soft power. What was once a medium designed to give fans an opportunity to re-live the highs and lows of previous campaigns, are now being designed and re-packaged with international audiences in mind.  This rise in international revenue means clubs are constantly fighting to win huge sponsorship deals abroad and what better way to do that than through social media and the rise of online streaming.”

Hilariously, the most illuminating comment from all of these documentaries comes from Kevin de Bruyne, a man with the same amount of understanding of what’s really going on when the Amazon cameras turn to him, as he does on the Etihad turf:

“I cannot do commercials today.”