For top footballers, the season is an ever-lengthening ordeal. Some 108 players from English Premier League clubs played at the World Cup in Russia, more than from any other league; Spain’s top division finished a distant second, providing 78 players. Within days of the World Cup’s conclusion, Premier League teams were already packing for meaningless pre-season friendlies in far-flung outposts of the ‘empire’—in Australia, Singapore, the US.
The club with the most players at the World Cup was Manchester City with 16, more than their rivals United, more than the most successful, most prestigious clubs in European football—more than Real Madrid and Barcelona, more than Bayern Munich and Juventus. City’s rise has been meteoric. Since winning a League Cup in 1976, the last, fading echo of a relatively glittering period for the club, City had floundered, playing in the third tier of English football in the same season that Manchester United swept to an unprecedented treble, winning the Premier League, the Champions League and the FA Cup.
In 2008, the club, owned then by the former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group. After a decade, and over a billion pounds in investment, City has won three league titles (having managed two since its founding in 1894), an FA Cup, and two League Cups. Last year, under the guidance of the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, City broke the records for most goals, most points, and most wins in a single Premier League season, finishing 19 points clear of United, their closest challengers. The season has been captured in exhaustive, if unilluminating, detail by the Amazon Prime documentary series All or Nothing. Released on August 17, all eight epi- sodes are available to watch, providing a backstage look at the smooth running of a successful, multinational corporation.
The operative word for All or Nothing: Manchester City is slick. Everything about it gleams, from the production values, to the club’s facilities, to the league campaign itself. This is more primped and preening advertorial than documentary, as if in exchange for ac-
cess, the filmmakers had to suspend all critical judgement, analysis and historical perspective. Guardiola is the undisputed focus of the documentary—a football prophet who, with the not inconsiderable help of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, created in Barcelona (2008-2011) perhaps the greatest club side in European football history.
An apostle of the Dutch master Johan Cruyff, Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams played in a distinctive style—short passing, with full backs as auxiliary attackers; pressing opponents high when possession is lost; and lots of tactical fouling in no-man’s land, disrupting the rhythm of opponents starved of the ball for large parts of the game. In All or Nothing, Guardiola comes across as a cult leader, all manic enthusiasm and physical charisma. He gets in his players’ faces, his affection as aggressive as his anger. He speaks in gnomic, rat-a-tat sentences, mostly about courage and values.
Last year’s The Title, by sportswriter Scott Murray, tells the story of the foundation of the English League in 1888 to the century-long history of the first division (1892-1992), before it was replaced in the 1992-93 season by the gussied up Premier League. It reminds you how open the top division of English football, indeed European football, once was, how provisional the gap between champions and also-rans. Gone now is the parochial English game—its solidarities and rivalries bolstered by the largely shared class and culture of both players and fans—replaced by corporate and cosmopolitan values. Manchester City attracted tens of thousands of paying supporters, bound by community. What keeps a global community of Manchester City fans together? A constant flow of money from Abu Dhabi and the trophies it buys? As journalist James Montague shows in The Billionaires Club, Premier League clubs are playthings of global robber-barons—Russian oligarchs, Chinese billionaires, American businessmen, and Arab princes. But why should fans care when the authorities clearly don’t?
As the Premier League returns to our screens this weekend, we in India, like armchair fans around the world, will be glued to our screens in numbers that our local clubs and leagues cannot hope to get. It’s not the football we love in India, where Premier League watchers are largely ‘affluent’. It’s
Guardiola trained his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams to play in a distinctive style