The fans, the football business, sport and a memory about Pelé: director Jeff Zimbalist talks about The fight for football – The Super League case, a docu-series in four episodes available on Apple TV+.
Four one-hour episodes for the four days that shattered European football. In between, a thriller, almost espionage approach in which the two opposite figures stand out – between betrayed friendships and twists and turns: Aleksander Čeferin and Andrea Agnelli. All this – and more – is The fight for football – The Super League caseApple TV+ docu-series directed, with rhythm and passion, by Jeff Zimbalist. The director himself, connected via Zoom, told us what it was like to shoot and produce the show, which focuses on the concept of the Super League and, above all, on how much more business than sport football has become. “I think there is a reluctance to recognize that this sport has become an entertainment business”explains the director in our interview. “That said, one feels the desire to hold on to the ideals of the past and struggles to come to terms with the inevitability of the present”.
Behind the scenes of football
What was the motivation that prompted you to make The fight for football – The case of the Super League?
It was an opportunity to see the mechanisms of power collide against each other. My biggest question was: what happens behind closed doors? What do these kids on both sides of this war for football think and feel, and where do the allegiances, conspiracies and leaked documents, hackers, betrayals and alliances move? Over the next few weeks, Connor Schell, my co-executive producer and Libby Geist, producer of the series, we had Zoom meetings with many of the decision makers, the decision makers, those who are most affected by this situation. Over the next few months, we got to sit around and spend a lot of time shooting with the leads. They started to trust us, they opened up with courage and vulnerability, they shared their personal experiences. It wasn’t just a turning point in their careers.
At the center the protagonists, Čeferin and Agnelli.
The show shows how deeply the event affects personal life, as in the case of Andrea Angeli, now former president of Juventus, who at the time was also president of the European Club Association. His relationship with Aleksander Čeferin, the chairman of governing body UEFA, was a deeply personal one. Alek was the godfather of Andrea Agnelli’s son. And over the course of those four days, these two men who represented a partnership and a personal relationship that was essentially avoiding a war in the industry, became enemies. And both point to different moments in their personal relationship where one has abandoned the other. So we were able and wanted to tell the story from the inside, through the perspectives of the people in the field, who make the decisions and live the experiences.
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Betrayals, money and thriller shades
Your docu-series looks like a spy thriller…
Yes, the goal was to embrace the thriller element. The tense nights, no nail biting, decisions made by candlelight and press releases coming out after midnight, people talking at press conferences. Liars, betrayals and secret plots. Documents leaked and hacked. It was a very exciting way to tell the story. And this is how we’ve broken it down: each episode is about a specific day. Naturally, this entrance is very compelling and has us excited creatively.
The story begins with Ranieri and Abramovich’s Chelsea, which is the moment in which football probably changes completely.
In the second installment we devoted a lot of time to what we call the “sugar daddy” phenomenon. When foreign club owners, particularly oligarchs like Abramovich and sheikhs, like Sheikh Mansour, from Middle Eastern states, start buying up clubs and injecting seemingly endless capital into buying players. The transfer values of the players are inflated. In 2017, Neymar’s record transfer fee was more than doubled by Paris Saint Germain with the addition of Mbappé. It is therefore a new phenomenon that changes the economy of sport and makes it much more difficult for clubs that have traditional profit models, which must have surplus balance sheets. At the end of each season, they are faced with clubs that may not care so much about breaking even, but have other motivations, such as prestige or political power. And I believe that, at least as far as the Super League is concerned, it should be indicated as the beginning of one of the main problems of the football industry. Then there’s COVID which makes the problem even worse and there are clubs that can’t keep up with this bubble. And in the run-up to April 2021, clubs like Barcelona were $1.1 billion in debt. And this volatility, this economic instability is one of the main cracks in the foundation of football.
The fans, yesterday and today
Fans are no longer the center of sport. Now business is at the heart of football. Do you think it is possible to return to a sporting dimension?
I don’t think many are arguing that there is an opportunity to go back to the popular game of the working class, shipbuilder and miner roots that owned these social clubs. I think there is a reluctance to acknowledge that this sport has become an entertainment business. That said, one feels the desire to hold on to the ideals of the past and struggles to come to terms with the inevitability of the present. And this seems to me a bit of an identity crisis. This sport is deeply rooted in multigenerational dreams and hopes that are based on this pyramid system model where anyone from any walk of life can make it to the top. Yet there are patterns in other sports that point to the privatization of sport as the only way to survive in late Capitalism. The Super League saga shows us both sides of this identity crisis. On the one hand, it shows us how confined she is. And at the same time it shows us that capitalism may have got its hands on football’s throat. But he didn’t fully own it either. Because the fans won. They claimed victory in the streets. UEFA claimed victory. The pyramid system is intact. It’s still the status quo. Promotion and relegation is still the way the game is played.
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In your opinion, what will football be like in five or ten years?
Your guess is as good as mine, as good as mine. I’m very excited to see what happens next. I believe football has the unique ability to unite and divide us on a global scale. There are 4 billion fans across the planet who tune in to this sport. So there is almost nothing that reflects such a large section of humanity. My hope is that there is a way for fans to continue to have a say in shaping the future of the sport and not be relegated to mere customers.
Jeff, you directed the Pele biopic a few years ago. A memory?
Pele was very open. He acknowledged his faults. He recognized the missteps he had made in his life, with his family, with politics. He recognized that he had flaws, that he was three-dimensional. And he often spoke of himself in the third person. He said that he would talk about Pelé different from Edson Nasimento. Nedsin Nasimento is a human being, flesh and blood. Pele is a mythology. Pelé represents so much more. And I think he did it because he needed to separate himself from the pressure of being an icon, a symbol. I was very impressed with how he has managed to maintain his humility despite the divine stature of his reputation, his name and his story.
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