No way José: Football is no soap opera, despite Amazon’s efforts
The most revealing moment in the opening episode of All Or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur occurs during a private meeting between the newly appointed manager, José Mourinho, and his captain, England’s star striker, Harry Kane.
“The world looks to English football with respect, but they still think the movie stars of football belong to other places … I am a little bit [like] that as a coach,” says Mourinho.
And so it goes from there. How the producers must have cheered when Tottenham dispensed with their highly successful, yet entirely fame-averse, manager Mauricio Pochettino, mid-season. Mourinho knows he is this star of the show and the programme-makers have clearly decided to let him steal every scene he’s in. I don’t blame them. During the rare moments in which Mourinho is absent, the series starts to feel like a high-budget video diary of a season that has already been and gone. Which it is. Sure, getting Tom Hardy to narrate an end-of-season DVD would be unlikely – but even the thrill of his dulcet tones soon wears thin, not least because he’s mainly talking about where Tottenham are in the league over yet another shot of the London skyline.
This is the third foray by Amazon into association football after previous series about Manchester City and the Brazilian national team. It’s a crowded marketplace. Netflix has a series following Juventus as well as the surprise hit Sunderland ’Til I Die, which has had two series released to critical acclaim. The format is well-established. The cameras come in, they get plenty of footage of footballers swearing at each other, and the programme-makers play up the various personality clashes in an attempt to show football to be more than a game. The problem is that it isn’t, not really. And never was that more apparent than this season, when it all had to pause due to a globally catastrophic pandemic.
Professional football is repeatedly characterised as a high-stakes affair, a ruthless business in which the finest of margins separate the winners from the losers, but the audience often doesn’t get to see the moments when these dynamics come to a head. The fact that Pochettino’s dismissal takes place off-camera is an early disappointment and one can’t help but shake the feeling that Tottenham and the club chair, Daniel Levy, were reluctant to let anything too interesting survive the edit. They certainly had to approve anything shown here.
That’s not to say the series isn’t well put together. It adroitly straddles the line between gritty workplace drama and glossy puff piece, and the scenes rarely drag (unlike the weirdly tedious series following Manchester City). Still, you can’t help but wonder who this is for – beyond diehard Spurs supporters, obviously. Sport isn’t a soap opera and its inherent drama doesn’t come from being packaged as one. The most obvious reason for this is that, because you know how they are resolved, key storylines from the show don’t quite work. Uncertainty over the Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen’s contract is covered extensively in episode two, and, while he comes across well, it’s hard to care too much knowing that he will be dumped by Levy at the end of the season.
What shows such as this can provide is additional insight for those who obsess about every detail of their club. But even that is rare. Yes, a Tottenham fan may feel better about the sale of Christian Eriksen after seeing that the Dane appeared to be a surly presence around the training ground, but we never find out why he is so unhappy.
This is where a show such as The Last Dance – which looked back at Michael Jordan’s time at the Chicago Bulls more than 20 years ago – succeeds where All Or Nothing never could. A series produced a decade or more after the events it documents will always be superior because its central cast no longer have reputations to protect in the same way. Not to mention, the drama of the seasons covered have faded in the memory. In comparison, the behind-the-scenes access provided by All Or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur feels like a pale imitation of the real thing – and it feels like only last month that the season finished. Because it was only last month.
If you love football, then you’re probably more interested in the fact that the new season begins in a couple of weeks, rather than in an Amazon docuseries about the circus surrounding it that inevitably leans heavily on the charisma (or lack thereof) of its central cast. Fortunately, Mourinho has this quality in abundance, but it means that how much you enjoy the series is largely contingent on what you think of the man and his motives.
The only problem, then, is that most football fans have long since made up their mind.