'Last Dance' style soccer docs we'd like to see, including Messi vs. Ronaldo

The seventh episode of “The Last Dance” details Michael Jordan’s decision to explore another sport, minor league baseball. What if the documentarians decided to explore another sport, too? Say, soccer? What stories could be told in the same way Jordan’s was?

Here are five suggestions.

Messi vs. Ronaldo: An individual duel that defined an era

“The Last Dance” captured such a wide audience on the strength of Jordan’s status as a cultural icon, and Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could do the same. For many, they are the two greatest soccer players in history. Two players who took the game to new, ridiculous heights.

But the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry did more than just provide an endless highlight reel of magical moments. It came to define an entire era of the European game. While matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid had long been a spectacle, they became something else for nearly a decade, another layer added to a rivalry already rich with societal and political nuance.

There would be no shortage of contributors to a docuseries about these two figures whose careers became intertwined. Messi isn’t much of a talker, but he has demonstrated more of a willingness to speak out when required of late, criticizing the Barcelona board in more than one interview.

Of course, Ronaldo isn’t one to shy away from a quote (or a camera, for that matter), having already been the subject of a feature-length documentary about his life and career. But this docuseries wouldn’t just be about the two players themselves, rather the way they set the standard at the top of the sport and how they made two of soccer’s most historic rivals about themselves.

A longform docuseries about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi? Yes please. (REUTERS/Stringer)
A longform docuseries about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi? Yes please. (REUTERS/Stringer)

Sir Alex Ferguson and the rise of Manchester United

If there’s a manager in British soccer history who deserves to be the subject of an in-depth docuseries, it’s Sir Alex Ferguson. Regarded by many as the greatest manager in the sport’s history, the Scot built a true dynasty that spanned nearly three decades at Manchester United, turning the club into the Premier League’s predominant force.

That rise was best illustrated across the 1990s, from the arrival of Eric Cantona in 1992 to United’s first league title in over a quarter-century in 1993 to the emergence of the “Class of ’92” to the historic Treble of 1999, capped by an improbable comeback in the Champions League final.

There was simply no era like it, with Ferguson’s United also taking on a cultural importance that placed them alongside Britpop and the election of Tony Blair as the first Labour Prime Minister in a generation as signs of a resurgent United Kingdom. There are countless threads a docuseries could pull on.

Much like “The Last Dance,” this would benefit from being recent enough to not feel like a chronicle of a bygone age, but far enough in the past that the collective memory could still be jogged. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see behind-the-scenes footage of an infamous “Fergie Hairdryer Treatment”?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s wild 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons

He was one of the best soccer players of his generation, but at the turn of the last decade, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was best known for linking two great teams and two great managers — while narrowly missing out as both won the Champions League.

The Swedish striker was a key member of Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan side in 2008-09, which won Serie A with Ibrahimovic as top scorer. But he found the lure of Barcelona, which won the Champions League that season, too strong and a move to Pep Guardiola’s side that summer.

Under Guardiola, though, Ibrahimovic struggled. He was a misfit for a team that played a very specific brand of soccer. “It started well but then Messi started to talk. He wanted to play in the middle, not on the wing, so the system changed from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1,” Ibrahimovic wrote in his autobiography. “I was sacrificed and no longer had the freedom on the pitch I need to succeed.”

The relationship between Guardiola and Ibrahimovic was tempestuous, with the whole episode coming to a head after Mourinho’s Inter famously knocked out Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals. “You haven’t got any balls,” Ibrahimovic claims to have screamed at Guardiola in the dressing room at the Nou Camp.

This match was a precursor to the Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry that would follow, with Ibrahimovic the bridge between two great teams and two great coaches. Ibrahimovic left Barcelona after just one season, but there’s a lot to this story.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a rough go at Barcelona. (Photo by Stephen Pond - PA Images via Getty Images)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a rough go at Barcelona. (Photo by Stephen Pond - PA Images via Getty Images)

How Juventus emerged from ‘Calciopoli’ to dominate Serie A

It was the scandal that rocked Italian soccer and could have destroyed the country’s most successful club. “Calciopoli” was the match-fixing scandal of 2006 which saw Juventus sent down to Serie B as punishment. A number of other top clubs, including AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, were also implicated in one way or another, but Juve’s sanction was the hardest, with their 2004-05 league title also stripped.

Juventus, however, used this as an opportunity to rebuild from the ground up. Manager Fabio Capello left, as did key players like Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta, Adrian Mutu, Patrick Vieira and Ibrahimovic. Didier Deschamps was hired in Capello’s place, guiding the Old Lady to promotion despite a nine-point deduction also meted out as “Calciopoli” punishment.

The much-maligned Stadio delle Alpi was demolished and the new Juventus Stadium built in its place. The new arena was smaller, humbler in a way that reflected the new ethos at Juventus. It was in these years that Juve laid groundwork for what would become a true dynasty, winning eight Serie A titles in a row and counting.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In many ways, the Juventus that stands today is a very different club from the one that went through “Calciopoli.” And yet Juve has restored itself as Italian soccer’s dominant force.

A docuseries on how it happened would be quite a watch.

Ajax’s 1995 Champions League triumph, and the generation it spawned

Every so often, a club catches lightning in a bottle. On the face of things, that’s what Ajax did in 1995, riding the coattails of a once-in-a-lifetime golden generation all the way to Champions League glory, beating a superstar-laden AC Milan team in the final.

But there was more to Ajax’s 1995 triumph than just good fortune. This is a club steeped in the principles and values of Johan Cruyff, the forefather of “Total Football.” The likes of Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Frank and Ronald de Boer, all fresh-faced youngsters at the time, were products of the club’s environment, of this sporting culture.

Of course, Ajax’s Champions League victory was also notable for the generation it spawned. Almost every member of Louis van Gaal’s team would enjoy notable careers, with van Gaal himself going on to coach Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and the Netherlands national team.

Ajax’s golden boys of 25 years ago now stand as a throwback to a time when Europe’s established order could still be crashed by an outsider, even if it was just for one season. Of course, Ajax came close to making another Champions League final last season with another crop of youngsters schooled in the ways of Cruyff, but they don’t compare to van Gaal’s boys.

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