Bend it like Beckham, One Night in Istanbul, Mike Bassett…

Each of these iconic films created stories around legendary football figures or matches, but now football is the story in and of itself. This gradual transition, from football serving as a backdrop to the plot, to individual players, matches and teams being the sole focus for a documentary, or even an entire series, has provided fans with an alternative way of consuming football in the modern era.

But why have these documentaries emerged? There is, of course, the sceptical view that they are only a further step towards the commercialisation and globalisation of football. Rather than expressing an authentic and original view of a football club, filmmakers seek to exploit fans’ capacity for consuming football-based content and to aid clubs in driving profits and growing their international fanbase.

YouTube video

The irony of this is seen no more than in the recently released documentary ‘Ours’, which centres around the fans themselves and the vibrant energy and culture they inject into a football club. Capitalising on the absence of crowds from stadiums over the last year, the show superficially reflects on fans’ essential role in football communities in order to attract viewers and generate commercial growth.

But it’s documentaries based around individual clubs, of which there have been a particular surge since 2018, that are proving more controversial. The high-profile, multi-billion-dollar empires of Netflix and Amazon have been utilised to promote football teams on a global scale, spreading brand awareness and ultimately creating more profitable businesses.

The most troubling aspect of this is, perhaps, how they effectively allow clubs to control their own narrative and market themselves exactly as they wish. Viewers worldwide gain what may be their only insight into the club, based on content that is entirely controlled by the club itself. This self-marketing seems to be one of the primary reasons for the creation of these documentaries, particularly given the correlation between the money received from leagues and the diversification of marketing techniques.

As film critic Patrick Gamble has commented: “[There is a] 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.”

But despite the overriding evidence that points to the profit-driven agendas behind these documentaries, they are overwhelmingly popular within these club communities that Gamble claims are being overlooked. All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur is 5.5 times more popular than the average TV series in the UK, and the Twitter response to the series’ release was largely a positive one.

Similarly, the first series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, released over two years ago, is still twice as watched as the average TV series in the UK. It was immensely well-received in the city itself, described by the Sunderland Echo as “a beautiful and fundamentally true piece of work.” The content is not, therefore, exclusively viewed by international fans; these documentaries consistently perform well in the UK, with lifelong fans actively engaging with them.

Yet the reason why they perform well with fans who already know most of the detail provided, and have already seen their club’s best moments countless times, is perhaps more complex. While these documentaries are typically marketed as providing a new, unprecedented perspective, through exclusive interviews and behind the scenes footage, it’s their association with the past that gives them meaning. For all the attention on the unseen, unheard perspectives revealed in each series, their most valuable asset may well be the re-affirmation to fans of their undying love for the game.

Each of these documentaries seeks to solidify football’s position within the culture and community that surrounds it, and that fans have come to view synonymously with it. Take Us Home: Leeds United, released in August 2019, focuses on the club’s attempts to rediscover their former glory in the top flight. The club’s present identity is defined, in the docuseries, entirely in relation to Leeds’ success in the past. The first footage we’re exposed to is of Leeds in the 1970s, and a great proportion of the matches shown throughout are from previous eras, rather than the present day.

YouTube video

This fixation with the past is entangled with the broader cultural links to the city – the opening scene plays ‘Damaged Goods’ by legendary Leeds band Gang of Four, with its distinct post-punk sound of the 1970s. Numerous adoring fans share how Leeds has been shaped by its unique position as a “One team city”, allowing the game to bring unity, rather than divisions, within the local community.

Football is depicted not merely as a part of life, but life itself, for several fans in the docuseries. As one man commented: “It’s reinvigorated my life, my focus – it’s all Leeds now,” further describing how the football club takes precedence over his wife and children. The intensity of fans’ commitment to the game is, perhaps, best epitomised by another fan’s assertion: “[Football] is, truthfully, my religion. When my kids say ‘mum you’re off to football again’, I say I’m off to Church.”

Religion may be a powerful metaphor used in this docu-series, but Sunderland ‘Til I Die takes it a step further – football is a literal part of religion in the city. Serving as the voiceover for the series’ trailer, a Priest reads aloud in a Church: “Dear Lord, help Sunderland, because the success of our team leads to the success and prosperity of our city. Amen.” By creating a clear correlation between Sunderland AFC’s turbulent downfall in recent years and the economic, as well as social, decline in the city itself, the importance of football in the city is made paramount.

The series trailer, and much of the series itself, barely focuses on Sunderland’s on-pitch performance. Rather, it focuses on the reactions to this and the aftermath of a city left in turmoil, revealing the extent to which football is at its heart. The trailer shows an ordinary fan in his own home, explaining how he named his son Niall after his favourite Sunderland player, Niall Quinn. From the opening line, there is a sense of the rich history of the club, with an implication that this, more than any changes to the team itself, is what will drive Sunderland to re-find their old form.  

YouTube video

However directly or indirectly, these documentaries or docu-series each poignantly celebrates football’s role in society. The focus on both the highs and lows reinforces viewers’ emotional connection with the game, reminding fans of all it has given them in the past. Whatever the reason for delving into the series, fans are clearly gaining something from it; most of those who watch the first episode go on to complete the series. Perhaps they are ignorant to the marketing masterminds behind these documentaries, but this doesn’t necessarily undermine or devalue their own personal enjoyment of it.

Scrutinising as to whether or not this is an exploitation of fan culture for commercial acumen is meaningless – the outcome with fans remains the same. Perhaps the answer differs for each individual series. Whereas there was a clear story of woe to tell with Sunderland, and a clear target to reach for Leeds United, Tottenham Hotspur’s instalment of the All or Nothing docu-series had no obvious backdrop, ironically saved by the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19.

This progression towards docu-series based on teams without a standout story may be a step too far, or it may create a further turn towards football-based content that sees each club as worth documenting in its own right. The ordinary, as opposed to the extraordinary, game may be perceived as worth the time and money of what is primarily reserved for exceptional teams or stories at present.

Whatever the future of football on the screen, the game’s capacity to create compelling stories worth exploring, analysing and re-telling will, no doubt, continue. In what exact capacity is yet to be determined.