Can football be saved? If so, from what – or whom? And what, ultimately, will lead to its salvation?

These are the central questions driving a new documentary titled, Super League: The War For Football, that launched this past weekend: a series delving into the four crucial days in 2021 that saw the rapid rise and fall of the European Super League, a breakaway competition made up of Europe’s biggest clubs that threatened to tear the game apart across the continent.

Sports governance and economics may not be the most gripping subjects for the average documentary-viewer, but by putting human faces to the names and suits – including some of football’s most influential figures on both sides of the divide – the series flays open the lies, deception, backstabbing, and struggles for power that often take place within sport’s shadowy boardrooms.

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The club badges of some of the teams involved in the European Super League; Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City and Manchester United.(Visionhaus/Getty Image)

By virtue of their treatment by director Jeff Zimbalist (The Two Escobars, PeléReMastered, The Line), these subjects become almost Shakespearean in scope and drama: the stage upon which unfolds a study of characters driven by their own sense of morality, ego, and righteousness about the future of the world’s biggest sport.

It opens with football’s current moment of crisis: painting a romantic picture of the game we know and love – the embodiment of the ideal that anything is possible, such as Leicester City winning the Premier League – before striking through it with a reminder that football is also business, power, and “naked, brazen capitalism”.

Football clubs have evolved from grassroots and fan-owned community organisations, a reflection of the people and the places that created them, to “play-things for the super-rich,” money-making machines whose endless need to feed themselves has pushed the professional game to “a breaking-point.”

Enter the European Super League, the most extreme manifestation of this decades-long gap opening between those who support the game and those who run it.

The ESL is a competition designed by the rich and for the rich: twelve of football’s biggest clubs like Juventus, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Barcelona, playing each other in their own glamorous upgrade on the current UEFA Champions League, one of the most lucrative single sporting competitions on earth.

This is the main plot line, the primary complication: both of these competitions, the old and the new, cannot co-exist. So which one will — or should — come out on top?

Divided into four episodes, each corresponding to the four pivotal days before and during the UEFA Congress in April of 2021 when the Super League launched (and quickly fell apart), the two perspectives are symbolically represented by the two protagonists who structure the series: UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin (nicknamed “The Diplomat”), who wants to maintain the game’s traditional romantic structures, and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli (“The Scion”), who sees the traditional game careening towards a financial cliff and thus wants to innovate and modernise it.

The tension between these two characters is the main thread of the series. They begin as close friends and professional allies, with Čeferin even named as godfather to one of Agnelli’s children, but end as two opposing warlords presiding over two versions of the same problematic footballing fiefdoms. Both deeply believe that their view of the future of the game is the right one, and use every weapon in their arsenal to keep that vision alive.

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UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin (left) and Juventus president Andrea Agnelli (right) are the documentary’s two protagonists whose competing worldviews define modern football.(Getty Images: ANP/Stefano Guidi)

It was exactly this exploration of what drives human beings in positions of power that Zimbalist wanted to achieve: putting faces, families, voices, stories and emotions at the centre of what is almost always viewed as a cold, hard, heartless part of sport.

“One of the things that attracted me was that we could take what otherwise might be a very cerebral sort of essay on sports economics and make it accessible to a wide audience – to a range of fans and non-fans alike – by focusing on the character journeys,” the director told ABC.

“We see this as a character-based thriller, and it unfolds over the course of 96 tense, suspenseful hours […] and we’re doing our best to tell it through the eyes and experiences of the men – all men – at the top who are making the decisions and calling the shots.

“It was really important to us in reaching out to these very difficult-to-access, very powerful and influential subjects, to say to them: we’re not just asking for an interview where you break down the logic and arguments of your case and how you want to fix or preserve football. We’re actually asking you to open up and be vulnerable and share your emotional experience with us, because we want viewers to be able to identify with you and relate to you as a human; to see some of their own dimensions in you.

“There’s a goal here to collapse that distance between the mechanical, faceless, behind-closed-doors strategist in the high tower, and the fan on the street. In this case, it was an opportunity to lift up the hood and watch the machinery at work.”

Each episode contains smaller sub-plots wherein different supporting characters weave in and out of fortune and favour – not just with each other, but also with the viewer.

Nasser Al-Khelaifi (“The Ambassador”), for example, who has deep ties to the Qatari royal family and was an influential figure in securing the 2022 World Cup hosting rights, enters the story as a mysterious outsider buying French club Paris Saint-German a decade ago.

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PSG president Nasser Al Khelaifi is one of several powerful figures who shapeshift over the course of the series.(Getty Images: Aurelien Meunier – PSG)

He is a clear metaphor for the “new money” pouring into European football from Gulf oil barons, Russian oligarchs, and American hedge-fund managers; men (and they are all men) with pockets as infinite as their ambition, and whose almost-unstoppable influence sparks anxiety from the “old wealth” that is unable to keep up with them.

Al-Khelaifi is one of several chess pieces that move across the board over the course of the series, slowly shuffling from the periphery to the centre of the establishment by siding with Čeferin in his stance against the rebel clubs.

But it is more complicated than that: his moves, like those of everyone else, are calculated; his alignment with UEFA is not out of principle, per se, but because for a man of infinite wealth, an ESL is not financially necessary. Polishing Qatar’s own image in the eyes of Europe’s elite, however, is.

We see the bombastic Javier Tebas (“The Firebrand”), the president of Spain’s La Liga, who at first is at loggerheads with Čeferin over lax Financial Fair Play laws and competition reforms, but soon aligns himself with UEFA against the ESL.

And yet Tebas, too, is part of the problem. Two of his clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, have become the architects of the spin-off league under his watch, while simultaneously being two of the biggest money-makers for Tebas’ own league. Does he want to kamikaze the ESL for morally righteous reasons, or is he as greedy as the rest?

“You get to know someone watching the way they deal with suffering,” he says, pointedly.

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Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, turns from foe to friend as the series unfolds.(Getty Images: Oscar J. Barroso/Europa Press)

People go the other way, too, or wobble somewhere in between, like FIFA President Gianni Infantino, whose mysterious role doesn’t materialise until the series’ final climactic episode.

Spoiler: it’s revealed he is the codename “MO1” which appeared in ESL documents leaked to the media, having held talks with rebel clubs over FIFA’s potential endorsement of their project in exchange for their participation in his own Club World Cup.

The series is one of the clearest journalistic presentations of the entire Super League drama while, while also being a masterful illustration of the power of storytelling: the shaping of reality in order to achieve certain goals.

The idea, for example, that the ESL was an entirely “closed shop” that insulated the big clubs from the kind of financial jeopardy associated with the traditional football pyramid was one that caused most of the anger at the time, but it’s one that was not entirely accurate: five spots were left open in the new league for incoming teams to replace under-performers every year, which is more than what some European leagues, including in England, currently offer.

Not that you would have known that from the aggressive public messaging that came from UEFA, whose own Super League – the Champions League, which earns them around $2 billion per year – was being existentially threatened by this new proposal, and whose own Champions League reforms were teetering in this direction anyway, so Čeferin had every reason to use spin and hyperbole to win the hearts of furious fans.

The idea that the two could not exist simultaneously was another myth. Football is, after all, the most blatant example of free market capitalism, where new or alternative products can flourish if there is a demand for it.

But the all-encompassing power of UEFA, their financial need to keep the biggest clubs under their competitive control, and their clever appeals to (particularly English) sensibilities of nostalgia and tradition, obscured the logic that has seen football become what it is (the good and the bad); whisking it up and away in the emotion stoked by their own strategic storytelling.

“From the outset, we were looking for the metaphor,” Zimbalist says. “This is about social democracy versus capitalism, and the [metaphor] we settled on is that it’s a coup d’etat attempt on the high offices of power in the world’s biggest sports industry.

“And like most coup d’etats throughout history, both sides – the usurpers and the establishment – argue that they’re doing what’s best for the people, for the population. That’s true here as well.

“The Super League is saying, ‘the fan may not acknowledge it yet, but this is a house of cards and it’s going to collapse. We need to think ahead, we need to be visionaries, we need to plan to save the sport down the line, and fans will thank us later.’ They point to the Premier League in the early 90s: when the new breakaway league was proposed, it was very unpopular in the UK, and now it’s a national treasure.

“Agnelli, the former chairman of Juventus and one of the architects of the Super League, says that whenever you propose fundamentally changing tradition, you’re going to be met with resistance, but sometimes that’s the growing-pain you need to get to the promised land.

“And then you find the other side saying: ‘we are doing what’s best for the fan by preserving tradition and protecting the hopes and dreams of generations of fans, who are actually the owners of the sport. They’re not customers, they’re the inventors and owners of these clubs.’

“So if you look at it through that prism – that both sides are saying ‘we’re doing what’s best for the fan’ – then ultimately it comes down to who can reach the fan, and that is a question of storytelling.”

Indeed, it was not the logic of business that collapsed the Super League less than a week after it was launched; a collapse precipitated by the holding-out of PSG and Bayern Munich, and soon followed by the withdrawal of the Premier League’s “Big Six” after threats from the UK government (who had their own politically-motivated rationale).

It was not a consideration of UEFA as holding a potential monopoly over European competitions, or the chicken-or-egg financial spiral that big clubs who both spend and earn the most money find themselves trapped in.

It was the story; the stirring up of the masses and the spilling out of football’s innards onto the street, the anger at the rose-tinted glasses of traditional football being violently ripped from the faces of those who still looked through them, no matter how logical or practically necessary it may be.

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Fan backlash leaves breakaway European soccer league in tatters

“Football touches every socio-economic group across the world, and that means we can use football as a mirror, as a lens through which to look at human behaviour,” Zimbalist says.

“There are certain identity crises that we investigate in this series that are very reflective of debates and identity questions we have in society right now: can you take something that is historically culture and turn it into business? Who has a say in that? How important is the fan voice in writing the future of the thing they invested? Who governs culture?”

These are all open-ended questions which the series leaves the viewer, ultimately, to decide upon. The post-script follows the outcome of legal challenges, which sees power restored to UEFA in being able to ban clubs from other competitions if they participate in this breakaway league, as well as the resignation of Agnelli as Juventus president.

However, there remains the lingering cliff-hanger that three of the original rebel clubs – Juventus, Real Madrid, and Barcelona – are still pursuing some version of a Super League, even if the first version may have collapsed in flames.

They still believe they are the ones to save football. The paradox the series poses is that they must save it from themselves.

“I think it’s going to be a turbulent set of months and years ahead,” Zimbalist says.

“I agree with just about every expert we interviewed – and there was over 30 of them from every perspective on the industry – they all agreed that there’s another crisis on the horizon.

“The problems that led to this proposal of the Super League in 2021 have not been solved. This is a sport and a culture industry that moves billions of dollars and billions of people, and there are almost as many opinions about which direction it should head in.

“I do think the sport is at a moment of identity crisis, and it’s going to need to reckon with whether it’s going to lean back in time towards the working-class roots of the people’s game, or whether it’s going to lean towards progress and allow itself to be more of the entertainment business that, at least here in the United States, many fans – or customers – have started to believe is inevitable.

“The goal [of the series] is to create a tug-of-war for the viewer where, for 15 or 20 minutes, you may be really rooting for and buying into the logic of the Super League, but in the next 15 or 20 minutes, you’re rooting for the logic of the fan or the governing body, UEFA.

“As we go through the four hours and the four days in this saga, we keep dripping layers of complexity on so that, by the end, hopefully we have a better understanding of how all these different stakeholder groups and power structures clash up against each other.

“Ultimately, if people can enter with one bias and leave having questions about their own bias and have more of an open mind about the others’ point of view, I think we’ve succeeded in creating better communication, and maybe that leads to more compromise.”

Super League: The War for Football is available to watch on Apple TV+ now.