Football fans will be the death of great sports documentaries

AAs a middle-aged man, I participate in a WhatsApp group with other middle-aged men. The dialogue on this thread is mostly an alienating arcana of jokes but, due to the overrepresentation of Arsenal fans in its demographic, interest has recently turned to the new Prime Video documentary series, All or nothing: Arsenal. Previous acclaimed seasons have followed Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City march to the league title and the arrival of the game’s most blockbuster manager, Jose Mourinho, at Tottenham Hotspur. Now it’s the turn of their north London rivals Arsenal to pull together some footballing magic for Amazon. Jeff Bezos may have been thinking about the 2003/04 psychodrama of the Invincibles when he signed that deal, dreaming that Arsenal could somehow achieve another unbeaten season, starting with a nice, easy game at newly-promoted Brentford. What could go wrong?

“Ffs why did they choose this season?” wrote a friend, when the trailer, showing Arsenal’s 2021/22 season, was released. “All or nothing?” replied a Spurs fan. “Spoiler alert: it was nothing.” The series darkens the season from the ground level, with an amount of access that would make a Kardashian blush. From the training ground to the penalty box, passing through the cryotherapy room and the dressing room, “for the first time in its history, Arsenal have authorized cameras behind the scenes” (as Daniel Kaluuya’s voice-over announces ). That should be enough to thrill north London, but does the drama of an indifferent season (in which Arsenal finished fifth in the league and were knocked out of the FA Cup at the earliest opportunity) translate to the non-Gunners? Or, more importantly, to those who are not interested in football or even sports?

One need only look at recent Academy Award winners for Best Documentary Feature to appreciate just how mainstream sports documentaries can be. Of Unbeaten from 2011 to 2018 Free Solo (by means of JO: made in America in 2016 and Icarus in 2017), the sports documentary feature is enjoying a golden age. But while there may be unprecedented reviews and accolades for these films right now, the sports documentary has a rich history. Since 1994 hoop dreamswhich followed two young black basketball players from Chicago as they pursued careers in the game, up to the 2010s Senna — Asif Kapadia’s almost poetic anthem to doomed Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna — there’s something about sport that transcends its practical reality. As critic Mark Kermode noted of Kapadia’s film, “This electrifying documentary is as dramatic, suspenseful and tragic as any feature film I’ve seen this year and I encourage those who don’t ‘have no affinity for fast cars to seek it out immediately.”

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Part of the reason sports documentaries work so well is that they are freed from the straitjacket of partisanship. If you watch football or basketball, boxing or Formula 1, the most pressing question is: who will win? Will it be my team, my player? Without this immediate concern, the sport has an almost classical quality. The movement of the bodies, the twists, have a rhythmic, expressive character. But if it’s ballet, it’s high-stakes emotional ballet. All of the most important human experiences – anticipation and frustration, expectation and elation, success and failure – play out on this grassy stage. Even if you’re not a working class kid in Chicago, you sympathize with this relentless pursuit of dreams; even without the smell of burning rubber and gasoline fumes, it’s human nature to feel moved by the way Senna’s tragedy triumphs.

But look All or nothing: Arsenal, it reminds me of one of the sports metaphors used in American political slang: “inside baseball”. Guillaume Safire, the New York Times‘ legendary language commentator, described the term as “minutiae savored by connoisseurs, delightful details, nuances discussed and dissected by aficionados”. It shows how sports fans can get caught up in the granular details, from stats and analysis to rumors and assumptions. In a 90-minute feature, sport can be an exquisite metaphor for the human condition. But spread over eight episodes, which can go up to an hour, the sport, to use the metaphor at its origins, can become rather “inside baseball”.

How does Bukayo Saka like his eggs? When did Aaron Ramsdale break his arm in a skateboard accident? Why does Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang shave a star in his hair? Get ready to find out! All or nothing: Arsenal is not a psychological drama; it’s almost a testimony of stream of consciousness. Games are won and games are lost, but the contract with Amazon was signed and sealed before a narrative could emerge. The result, for better or for worse, is rather “inside football”.

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Nevertheless, group chats across the country will explode this week as the first episodes are released. As a fan of Arsenal’s much maligned east London neighbors West Ham, I would give a kidney for this kind of insight into all areas of my club’s operation. But I, even with my most burgundy specs, can see that the demands of football fans and the demands of viewers are very different. The golden age of creative and artistic sports documentaries may be over and the age of extended fan service is about to begin.

The first three episodes of ‘Arsenal: All or Nothing’ will be released exclusively on First video Thursday, August 4

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