New Apple TV+ documentary series Super League: The War for Football examines a dark and very recent chapter in the beloved sport’s history when the bubble threatened to burst.
Capitalism’s slowly tightening stranglehold over the sport meant that some owners saw the potential for growth that meant cutting off not just more than half of the European teams, but the thousands of fans of those teams. This is the story of the people who saved football … for now.
Review: Super League: The War for Football
As the unprecedented success of Ted Lasso and the yearly World Cup takeover of America ought to have shown people, football (soccer, to us American heathens) is the most popular sport in the world. It transcends borders and wealth brackets and personalities.
I myself was never a sports guy, but I appreciate that the football games are run by unions. You start small as a regional club, and can progress until you’re one of the few teams selected to compete at the international level.
Aleksander Čeferin, president of the Union of European Football Associations, explains it very precisely in the opening of Super League, the four-part docuseries that debuts today on Apple TV+. The organization takes about 3% of the profits generated from the UEFA games every year, and the other 97% is given back to the lower-level clubs so they can continue to operate and try to be better next year and maybe make it to the top.
So all the money from selling beer and shirts and seats, which comes to about 3 billion euros? That gets redistributed so that every player and manager can keep the lights on during the off-season.
Big egos and an even bigger cash grab
The trouble started with ego. Some players started demanding exorbitant salaries, and the annual salary of the clubs who want to keep them on the team simply won’t cover those demands. This planted the idea in some club owners’ heads that there was more money to be made.
So, in secret, a group of billionaire club owners and sponsors decided it would be much more beneficial to cut out the middle and low men on the pole, only keeping the most profitable European football clubs in perpetual competition with each other. Thus, there’s no chance a club could have a down season. And, absent the oversight of UEFA, the sport could enjoy potentially limitless economic growth. (I guess no one told them there’s no such thing.)
This project was dubbed, creatively enough, The Super League.
The Super League pitch roils football
Now, this pissed off a lot of people (not least Čeferin) because, on the one hand, it was a way to stymy the potential of smaller football clubs, but in a more romantic sense, it meant that the dreams of thousands of players, and their millions of fans, were being strangled in their crib.
The owner of the world-famous Real Madrid football club, Florentino Pérez, and his financial adviser, Anas Laghrari, saw this not as a betrayal but as an evolution. Laghrari had no trouble convincing Pérez that football was not a romantic ideal, but rather just another piece of content. The Super League is described by its proponents as a blockbuster, whereas the champion league is described as a movie with subtitles. (No wonder these guys are all millionaires.)
So they went behind UEFA’s back and decided to try and make this work on their own. Čeferin soon found himself with few allies (Andrea Agnelli, his best friend and the man to whose daughter he was godfather, was part of this pincer maneuver to kneecap UEFA) and only a few hours to save football.
It’s a community, it’s a shared language
In the very beginning of the Super League docuseries, someone off-screen (I narrowed it down to either Murad Ahmed or Roger Bennett, based on their voices) says, “Football is the most important of all the unimportant things in life.” That’s an important thing to keep in mind throughout the very long runtime of this series. Director Jeff Zimbalist does a frequently great job rendering the complicated politics and policies of the leadership of football to people like me who only know about it because my brother-in-law is a Bradford fan.
I found all the stuff about the inner workings of the UEFA, and the competing greedy thugs who tried to outflank the union, to be very compelling stuff indeed. I was less interested in the long detours to explain why some clubs (like Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain F.C.) became such juggernauts and decided to try and save the biggest slice of the Euro pie for themselves.
All you really need to say is they had famous players and feckless owners. It’s OK to work in shorthand, but I get it — you get more money if you stretch the series’ runtime to four hours. So I spent most of the middle two episodes of Super League waiting for things to get as exciting as they are when just discussing the backroom dealings and handshakes.
These people are all the same
I’m less interested in psychoanalyzing the various chairpersons and secretaries and oligarchs and plutocrats who run world soccer because, ultimately, they’re all the same. They’re blowhards. And when they have the interests of the public at heart, it’s good; when they’re trying to screw people for money, it’s bad. Pretty simple, in a way that the ins and outs of football club union dues aren’t.
Furthermore, when you realize that this great four-day intrigue in 2021 boiled down to A) the right people gave the right speeches, B) the fans rebelled and C) people got nervous, it looks even more ridiculous that Zimbalist filmed so much B-roll to explain these things. He even tries to compare Agnelli’s betrayal of Čeferin to the end of The Godfather, a reach so long it broke my arm. They’re both gonna be just fine, I think.
And that’s really the thing here. The documentary’s argument is that football is the sport of the people, and attempts to make it into Disney World are wrongheaded in the extreme. But, as we are warned in the series’ closing minutes, this is a time of disaster capitalism. You cannot protect something so profitable from the thieving hands of the wealthiest men in the world. If we couldn’t stop global warming, what chance does soccer have?
Why football is important
However, I think, basically, this is a story worth telling. Why?
When I lived in Queens a few years back, I used to hit the same bodega every night after work. Nine times out of 10, the same guy was behind the counter. He was a Syrian refugee named Mohammed and he was the sweetest kid in all of Astoria — just a guy getting his work done and hoping to do a little traveling.
Every time I’d come in and order my sandwich after working hours at a bar, he’d tell me how Real Madrid was doing, what season the team was in, whether they were currently playing any qualifying games, whether they had a shot at the World Cup. This stuff all meant something to him. From his perch in the bodega, he could see two things during his endless shifts — the front two rows of the shop, and the TV. People need the important unimportant things. They can be the most beautiful things we’ve got.
Watch Super League The War For Football on Apple TV+
All four episodes of Super League: The War for Football premiere Friday, January 13, on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.