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The footage is inarguably compelling. “All or Nothing” opens its first episode with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola giving a halftime team talk that is both confounding for its lack of context – the team is somber, things are plainly not going as they wished – yet mesmerizing for Guardiola’s unintelligible word salad and his frantic pacing and hopping and skipping. As far as team talks go, this one is the coaching equivalent of a decathlon.
From there, the documentary series, recently released on Amazon Prime, tails off a bit, capturing the humdrum life of the daily practice and injury recovery regimen at the elite end of professional soccer. It also rides along on the crests of the many triumphant waves of City’s record-breaking 2017-18 Premier League-winning season.
Within the modest canon of fly-on-the-wall pro sports series, “All or Nothing” is unusually revealing. Top soccer teams have done this sort of thing before. Liverpool once did a remarkably tedious series called Being: Liverpool. And other sports have dabbled in it, with HBO’s Hard Knocks NFL series dominating the genre.
But in soccer, this is largely uncharted territory. “All or Nothing” lets you in on the humor and emotion of a professional locker room. It offers interesting snippets of tactical breakdowns. And, most intriguingly, it serves up a close look at Guardiola at work – an oh-so-precious peek at a bona fide genius, albeit one backed by enough money to spend world-record sums on backup defenders, performing in his prime.
Were it not for this series, we’d never get to watch this kind of thing. It would be seen by those in the room and then lost to time. So the series has rightfully garnered some buzz. Over in England, Radio Times called it “mesmerizing.”
Yet the Guardian points out that, “as a piece of journalism it is cowardly.” Which is true enough, as the series pulls every punch it possibly can. When a player is being scolded by Guardiola after a game, for instance, the camera is set up so that all you can see is the manager, not the subject of his ire or anybody else. And that really gets at the crux of the matter.
Amazon reportedly paid some 10 million pounds to be allowed to make this series. And right off the bat, the cardinal rule of journalism not to pay for access was broken. Radio Times fawns that “Amazingly, City claim they didn’t have editorial control over the final cut. A seal of authenticity for the show, if ever there was.” Yet it then goes on to point out that “potentially slanderous scenes, or footage containing commercially sensitive information, was censored.”
How a de facto veto over any footage that might seem insulting or unflattering or damaging doesn’t amount to editorial control is left unexplored.
This, then, is not journalism. And, as such, it’s not really a documentary. It’s marketing material. A very elaborate exercise in old-fashioned PR. It’s a sanitized version of the truth, polished to a shine. “All or Nothing” may add significantly to our understanding of City during this transcendent Guardiola era, but it’s also a carefully curated version of events.
“All or Nothing” is compelling television, but it isn’t entirely real.
And as such, it speaks to the erosion of authenticity in soccer. As an industry, it is now almost entirely controlled by its major clubs. While the traditional media has ever less opportunity for meaningful time and interaction with players and managers, especially at City’s rarefied atmosphere, the clubs have begun to seize the content game. And, as such, the narrative.
This has been going on for some time. Recently, City hired a content producer” in the United States whose job it is to engage and cover its North American fan base and the stateside summer tours. Bayern Munich has long had an office in New York City where several people churn out content and generally concern themselves with building the club’s brand and cultural footprint in the U.S. FC Barcelona now has an office in New York as well.
This is not merely a soccer trend. Globally, PR people outnumber journalists about five to one. More and more companies produce their own content, casting light on themselves through a soft-focus lens. One of the world’s most circulated magazines, the Red Bulletin, is produced by the Red Bull energy drink. And while it isn’t explicitly an advertisement – most of this sort of content is more sophisticated and insidious than that – it nevertheless shows the world through Red Bull’s carefully curated viewfinder.
Among the dozen or so teams still realistically capable of consistently competing for the Champions League title, the notion of a club has been replaced by a mega-brand. They all began as ragtag groups of amateurs, who happened to be really good at soccer and grew as a collective. Until, decades later, there stood a professional organization. But for most of their existence, they remained clubs, run by passion and volunteerism. That age is long gone.
And with it has receded the sense that what you’re watching is organic. Everything is crafted now. Everything but the games themselves. Teams build new stadiums to increase revenue by single percentage points. They rebrand, casting aside century-old logos for one that’s easier to monetize. Club directors are executives now. Everybody else is an employee.
Companies with hundreds of millions in revenue don’t leave things to chance. They control the variables that they can. The management of the public image for a club like City will only become more careful, more painstaking. Access will wither further; in-house content continues to thrive.
It’s a shame. Soccer, like all sports, is a spectacle of humanity and drama. But our consumption of it is being edited and run through lawyers and PR professionals.
“All or Nothing” and the imitations that will inevitably follow it will give us more insight than before. And yet also less of it. And so soccer, in the end, is both richer and poorer for it.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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