The fall of the Super League: New Apple doc goes deep on soccer’s ‘coup’ attempt

The richest soccer clubs, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, are different than you and me. They are playthings for the world’s super-rich, a luxury yacht away from the working-class roots the sport was built upon. Soccer, especially in Europe, has long felt at a crossroads between what the wealthiest clubs desire (more revenue to continue their galactic spending sprees) and the rest of the lot who can’t compete in that solar system and want to uphold the sport’s community -based roots.

That contrast and push and pull is exceptionally told by executive producer and director Jeff Zimbalist in Apple TV’s recently released four-part docuseries, “Super League: The War for Football.” The film focuses on the creation — and ultimate failure — of a proposed “Super League” competition among Europe’s most popular teams. The Super League nearly launched in 2021 and would have featured the likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool, Juventus and others competing in a mostly-exclusive competition. Had it been successful, it would have ended the Champions League’s significance. (And the saga may not be entirely over yet.)

Zimbalist, who along with his brother, Michael, directed the sensational “The Two Escobars” in 2010 for ESPN’s “30 for 30,” has taken what it is essentially a sports business story and made it a compelling piece of filmmaking. He does so with remarkable access to the major players in the saga, including Aleksander Čeferin, the leader of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA); Andrea Agnelli, the scion of one of Italy’s most famous families and the then-head of the Italian team Juventus; Florentino Pérez, the longtime president of Real Madrid; Javier Tebas, the truth-telling president of La Ligaand all sorts of various other characters, including politicians and top soccer reporters.

“When the story broke in April 2021, it was shocking,” said Zimbalist. “It was a coup d’état attempt on the highest offices of power within the biggest sports industry in the world. It was clearly going to have repercussions far outside the sport extending into economics, culture and politics. Rarely do we get that opportunity to lift the hood up and to look at the machinery at work. This is a $40 billion-a-year industry where most of the time the decisions are made behind closed doors by men in suits and we hear about it afterwards and are left to speculate at how we got to those decisions.

“Football is in a bit of an identity crisis right now. We’re clinging to the values ​​of the working class people’s game of the past while reluctantly accepting the inevitability of the present that this is entertainment business. Those two forces were bashing up against each other here, and this was a chance to go behind those closed doors.”

The documentary is broken down into four episodes, representing the four days in April 2021 in which the Super League was announced and then crashed. The scathing reaction to the league in Europe played out as European soccer leaders held their congress in Montreux, Switzerland. Zimbalist calls his docuseries a character-based thriller that looks at questions such as whether soccer culture can be owned.

The film fuses archival footage, along with power players such as Čeferin and Agnelli agreeing to let the filmmakers re-create things that happened during the four days of that UEFA Congress. Zimbalist said he believed he received access from all parties (FIFA president Gianni Infantino was the only power player who declined the filmmakers’ request for an interview) because those involved on all sides know that the battle is still being waged in the court of public opinion.
The total running time of the docuseries is 223 minutes, with each episode clocking in between 53 and 59 minutes.

“For an American audience, you need to explain the entire pyramid system and how promotion and relegation works,” Zimbalist said. “You need to give a little context as to why the fans in Europe feel that this is their birthright, that they’re the owners of these teams, as opposed to in the US where we feel that of course the fans are customers and of course course this is capitalism. ‘What do you mean, social democracy?’ So that context felt like it needed enough room to breathe, and we wanted to explain things in a way that it didn’t feel like it was an info overload or an essay on sports economics.

“On the other hand, you want it to be short enough that you can keep the thriller components of it and the narrative drama working. We looked at the four days when this unfolded between April 17 and April 20, 2021, as a great opportunity structurally to have each episode be one of those days.”

Zimbalist believes it is irrelevant how he personally felt about the prospect of a Super League. His goal di lui as the filmmaker was to let each viewer process what he or she thinks is best for European soccer long-term.

“I feel my job is to try to be as persuasive for both arguments as possible,” Zimbalist said. “I see the arguments on both sides, and I’m fascinated by how football consistently shows itself to be a mirror of our shifting values ​​at a given moment in history. I do think, realistically, there are turbulent times ahead and there will be some growing pains. But I’m also hopeful that the roots of the sport that have made it so magical for over 150 years will find a way to continue to write the future of the sport.”



New-look Super League planning fresh ‘attack’ on football, warns Tebas

Episode 269 of the Sports Media Podcast features a roundtable sports media discussion with Boston Globe sports media writer Chad Finn and Sports Business Journal managing editor/digital Austin Karp. In this podcast, Deitsch, Finn, and Karp discuss the NFL wild card weekend; ESPN’s Cowboys-Bucs coverage; Greg Olsen; Tony Romo; Al Michaels; Tony Dungy; Tom Brady’s futures; Fred Gaudelli; Netflix’s sports documentaries, including “Break Point”; Apple TV+’s “Super League: The War for Football”; Australian Open coverage and more.

(Photo: Rob Pinney/Getty Images)


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