FILMMAKER Jeff Zimbalist sensed the upcoming mayhem when some of the most powerful soccer clubs in the world announced the ill-fated launch of the breakaway European Super League in April 2021.
“It was shocking, it was a coup d’etat attempt essentially on the high offices of power in the biggest sporting industry in the world,” Zimbalist, 44, told The US Sun.
As he followed the ensuing confrontation between executives of Juventus, real Madridand Barcelona that spearheaded the effort and UEFA, Europe’s soccer governing body, the idea for his docuseries – Super League: The War For Football – was born.
“What was fascinating is that it was unfolding in real time before us,” Zimbalist said.
“There was clearly two armies being compiled, there was allegiance shifts happening actively.”
And, Zimbalist thought the outcome would have ripple effects extending far beyond the sport, considering soccer as a close reflection of society.
“I think it’s a mirror for human behavior [and] shifting values in society at a given moment in time,” the director behind The Two Escobars and Pele: Birth of a Legend said.
“So I had a ton of questions.”
Zimbalist and Co. shared their findings with the world on January 13 when The War For Football premiered on Apple TV+ as a four-part series.
In the doc, they speak to European club owners, league presidents, and UEFA officials to tell the story of the governing body’s efforts to thwart an attempt of 12 iconic soccer clubs to revolt in search of financial stability.
But also, the filmmakers bring in well-known broadcasters and ex-players, such as Kate Abdoo and Gary Lineker, and fan group representatives who comment on the unfolding crisis while providing the necessary context.
the Super League concept involved abandoning, for the most part, Europe’s traditional pyramid system of promotion and relegation and establishing a closed league made of the best sports entities on the continent in order to maximize profit.
The competition’s structure wouldn’t be very different from that of the NFL or NBA.
Yet in Europe, the idea was considered an assault on soccer’s core values and sent thousands of protesters to the streets, forcing most rebel clubs to back out of their commitment to the Super League.
“And this is sort of, I think, how this story reflects a general trend or a general moment in society,” Zimbalist said.
“There’s a bit of a tug of war between, you know, do we want our culture to be social democracies driven by the interests of the consumers or by the fans?”
“Or have we just accepted that, really, these are entertainment industries – and the fan is actually just a client, a customer?”
“This is the debate that’s happening in many sports.
“And in the United States, I don’t think we’ve asked that question of the role of the fan quite as much because we don’t have that history.”
This is why The War For Football makes sure to take a deep dive into the roots of the distinct culture of European fandom that formed around soccer for decades – and which might feel foreign to many sports fans in the US
“I think it’s important to show American viewers that this sport came about from the ground up,” Zimbalist said.
“It came about from these working-class shipbuilders and coal miners who co-created a social club.
“And that thing has been so successful that many of them feel it’s been taken away from them, it’s been hijacked.”
But The War For Football doesn’t depict the Super League story purely as a battle between good and evil.
It treats the conflict more as a clash of ideologies, and so offers Super League founders an opportunity to be heard.
Former Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez explain how family values drive their push for the Super League — which, they believe, would not only protect their clubs but also soccer as a whole.
“My family always will say, ‘Something which is well done can be done better,’” the ex-Juve chief says in the doc about the Agnelli family, a business dynasty that, besides Juventus, owns Ferrari and several other sports manufacturers.
“But you need visionaries in the leading position to understand properly what is the situation of football before it’s too late.”
The series also depicts the worsening financial situation of European clubs that, in some cases, stems from the reckless spending of their owners.
But also from UEFA’s failure to intervene when wealthy billionaires started pouring unlimited amounts of money into the sport for political gain, sending operating costs through the roof.
The issues raised by Super League founders weren’t without merit – and, as Zimbalist pointed out, many of them still haven’t been resolved.
“I think that it was a refreshing headline to see that fans taking the streets in protest actually move the needle,” the director said.
“And that perhaps the sport, maybe while capitalism has its hands around the throat of football, it hasn’t been fully appropriated by private interests
“Now, there’s also a more cynical way of looking at this that questions whether the fan’s voice really is playing a role in shaping of the sport going forward — or maybe that was a series of opportunistic alignments of agendas?
“And that’s a question that we ask in the series.”
Juventus, Real Madrid, and Barcelona have still not given up on the breakaway league idea and are currently fighting UEFA in court, trying to prove the governing body has an illegal monopoly over European soccer under EU competition law.
Although the European Court of Justice initially sided with the governing bodyit’s yet to release the final decision.
All in all, Zimbalist said it’s not impossible to imagine another Super League push taking place in the future.
“Maybe there is a better-organized effort in the future that can withstand the pushback, particularly in England, maybe there’s a better moment in time when the forces align in such a way,” the director said.
“Everyone we talked to on the series believes there’s another crisis coming.”
“There are many that believe while [the 2021 Super League idea] might not have been the right solution, the sport does have to adapt and evolve or else it is a house of cards that will come tumbling down.”
“So I don’t expect that we’ve reached a sort of homeostasis here.
“I think that there is going to be more activity and it may take the form of another variation of a Super League, may take the form of an extension of that one — but it may take a different form altogether.
“The thing that I feel confident in is that there’s going to be turbulence in the football industry going forward.”