Friday, January 13, 2023

Super League: The war for Football, on Apple TV+

Football (soccer) is the most popular sport on Earth, but its international governing body is one of the most despised organizations in the world. Even after Sepp Blatter’s departure, FIFA probably ranks somewhere between the Mafia and the FSB in international opinion polls. The six continental football associations feeding into FIFA aren’t much better (some might be even worse), yet the European UEFA largely cast itself as the defender of the game when twelve of its richest clubs proposed a breakaway league. The resulting clash of money and egos is not quite concluded yet, but Jeff Zimbalist chronicles the fight so far in the four-part docuseries Super League: The War for Football, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

It is clear right from the start everyone underestimated UEFA’s new Slovenian president Aleksander Ceferin when he was elected. Slovenia was not exactly a football powerhouse, but the lawyer proved to be a savvy deal-maker. He thought he was negotiating in good faith towards that end with his friend, Andrea Agnelli, the chairman of the elite Italian club, Juventus.

Everyone acknowledged the financial outlook for clubs was growing ever more challenging, especially those who tried to compete with the salaries offered by English Premier League clubs. Ceferin thought he close to finalizing a deal to help clubs of Juventus’s stature, but he was blindsided by the sudden announcement of the Super League, an unsanctioned league outside UEFA’s jurisdiction, that included Juventus and six top English Premier League teams.

Zimbalist and his experts (including Kate Abdo, from Fox’s World Cup coverage team) do an excellent job explaining the structure of European football leagues and how revenue generated by the top professional clubs trickle down to the tiers of local and neighborhood clubs beneath them. A lot of fans saw the Super League scheme as a threat to this football ecosystem and they did not take kindly to it.

To his credit, Zimbalist (who previous helmed the football doc
The Two Escobars and the narrative film Pele: Birth of a Legend) allows both sides to make their cases, which might lead some viewers to question their previous assumptions regarding the proposed Super League’s dire implications for grass roots football. (The “founders” insist their plan will disperse more funds to the small clubs.) However, the Super League’s PR game was extraordinarily tone-deaf.

Naturally, the current FIFA president, Gianni Infantino (Blatter’s successor) has a role to play in this drama, which he does so in characteristically opportunistic fashion. Zimbalist’s talking heads often frame the Super League controversy as a conflict of fans versus “capitalism,” but that is a simplistically ideological take. In fact, Super League partisans are not wrong when they accuse UEFA of acting like a cartel. Indeed, over the last twenty years, FIFA and the IOC have done more to tarnish sport (through corruption and “sports-washing”) than anything any owner has.

Nonetheless, the mini-series raises issues of club ownership it never fully addresses. The same fans who were up in arms over the Super League scheme hardly reacted when Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich (considered one of “Putin’s wallets”) bought Chelsea. He only appears as a footnote in
Super League, but he is arguably quite symbolic of football’s institutional issues.

Indeed, it looks like quite a bit happened as Zimbalist approached picture-lock, because the mini-series ends with three or four minutes of updates that are as consequential as any previous episode.

Although Zimbalist and the editorial team deserve credit for clarity, the pace sometimes drags a little, especially during the first two episodes. It is important to note none of
Super League involves action on the pitch, just in the board room. However, all the major players get a fair chance to speak their piece. For now, committed soccer fans might get a fuller perspective from Super League: The War for Football when it starts streaming today (1/13) on Apple TV+.