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Football fans will be the death of great sports documentaries

Asa man of a certain age, I am a participant in a WhatsApp group with other men of a certain age. The dialogue on this thread is predominantly an alienating arcana of in-jokes but, due to the over-representation of Arsenal fans in its demographic, interest has switched, of late, to the new Prime Video documentary series, All or Nothing: Arsenal. Previous acclaimed seasons have followed Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City marching to the league title, and the game’s most blockbuster manager, Jose Mourinho, arriving at Tottenham Hotspur. Now it’s the turn of their north London rivals, Arsenal, to muster some footballing magic for Amazon. Perhaps Jeff Bezos was thinking of the 2003/04 psychodrama of the Invincibles when he inked this deal, dreaming that Arsenal could somehow achieve another unbeaten season, starting with a nice, easy fixture at newly-promoted Brentford. What could go wrong?

“Ffs why did they choose that season?” one friend wrote, 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 shadows the season from pitch level, with an amount of access that would make a Kardashian blush. From the training ground to the penalty box, via the cryotherapy suite and dressing room, “for the first time in their history, Arsenal have allowed cameras behind the scenes” (as Daniel Kaluuya’s voiceover announces). This should be enough to set spines tingling across 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 non-Gunners? Or, more importantly, to those without an interest in football or even sports?

You only need to look at recent winners of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature to appreciate how mainstream the sports documentary can be. desde Undefeated in 2011 through to 2018’s Free Solo (by way of OJ: Made in America in 2016 and Icarus in 2017), the feature-length sports documentary is having a golden age. But while there might be unprecedented critical and awards acclaim for these films right now, the sports documentary has a rich history. From 1994’s Hoop Dreamswhich followed two young Black basketball players from Chicago as they pursued a career in the game, to 2010’s Senna – Asif Kapadia’s almost poetic paean to doomed Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna – there is something about sport that transcends its practical reality. As the critic Mark Kermode noted of Kapadia’s film, “This electrifying documentary is as dramatic, suspenseful and tragic as any feature film I have seen this year and I encourage those with zero affinity for fast cars to seek it out forthwith.”

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

but watching All or Nothing: Arsenal, I am reminded of one of the sports metaphors employed in American political slang: “inside baseball”. William Safire, the New York Times‘ fabled language commentator, described the term as “minutiae savored by the cognoscenti, delicious details, nuances discussed and dissected by amateurs”. It speaks to the ways that sports fans can get caught up in the granular detail, from statistics and analytics to rumors and hypotheticals. In a 90-minute feature film, sport can be an exquisite metaphor for the human condition. But spread out over eight episodes, of up to an hour long, sport, to return the metaphor to its origins, can become rather “inside baseball.”

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

All the same, group chats around the country will be blowing up this week as the first episodes trickle out. As a fan of Arsenal’s much maligned east London neighbours, West Ham, I would give a kidney for this sort of access-all-areas insight into the workings at my club. But I, even with my most claret-tinted specs on, can see that the demands of football fans and the demands of television audiences are very different. The golden age of creative, artistic sports documentaries may well be over, and the age of protracted fan service about to begin.

The first three episodes of ‘Arsenal: All or Nothing’ will launch exclusively on Prime Video on Thursday 4 August

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