You’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes every time you heard football described as an art.
Deep-rooted issues of discrimination and financial malpractice have made it difficult to revere a game once-described by Dmitri Shostakovich as “the ballet of the masses”. But Amazon’s new docuseries This Is Football – notwithstanding a thumping opening credits sequence teeming with theatrical sound bites including “football is not a game, it’s an emotion” – gives reason to the worldwide fascination.
Written and co-created by award-winning foreign correspondent and sports author John Carlin (Invictus), the six-episode series chronicles the extraordinary effects of football on communities across the globe, from the streets of South Africa and the bars of Beijing to the bright lights of the Champions League final.
This freedom gives This Is Football a sense of hybridity, a series permitted to roam every corner of the Earth to tell six very different stories
Each episode is structured to showcase football’s universal themes (‘Pride’, ‘Love’, ‘Belief’, and so on), an unconventional approach – there is no sustained story – but one which allows individual narratives to develop independently. This freedom gives This Is Football a sense of hybridity, a series permitted to roam every corner of the Earth to tell six very different stories. There is a genuine variety here; the focus might jump from the plight of the Japanese women’s team in the aftermath of the 2011 natural disaster to Iceland’s unlikely heroics at the Euro’s in 2016 (as if we needed reminding?). Episodes leap between countries and communities in a way that keeps the viewer engaged in the latest story whilst never losing track of the series’ central focus – that football remains at the root of these communities.
Often, scenes feel more akin to Planet Earth than Bend It Like Beckham; sweeping shots of landscaped vistas are accompanied by a score from composer Lorne Balfe (Mission Impossible: Fallout) which heightens the drama of a series which is, at the end of the day, about kicking a ball around.
We learn of the healing power of a game which provided solace to thousands in the wake of the genocide nightmare of 1994
But this is, of course, precisely the point. There is a drama about football, a sense of emotion to be drawn from a sport which has helped so many. Episode 1 – ‘Redemption’ – begins in Rwanda and follows devoted Liverpool fans the Rwandan Reds as they bond over fandom and the sense of community it inspires. We learn of the healing power of a game which provided solace to thousands in the wake of the genocide nightmare of 1994. One man speaks of football as “the centre of the processes of recovery” in the country, another of his association to the national team which kept him alive during the killing sprees. The producers are careful not to sensationalise events – it was not football that ended the conflict, after all – but it’s clear that the sport was a source of happiness and fellowship in a time when it seemed there was none.
This Is Football continues in this vein throughout its six episodes, a testament to its commitment to digging deeper than the idolatry of the game’s biggest stars. That being said, it refrains from being entirely driven by weighty emotion. Episode 6 – ‘Wonder’ – sees 60 minutes dedicated to the skill and psychology of a certain 5’ 7’’ Argentine (or the “1 in 7.2 billion miracle”, as the statisticians put it). It offers some light relief from the heavy lifting of the previous chapters, and throws some chalkboard mathematics into the mix (try explaining the ‘theory of Messi’…).
Despite increasing rifts between the professional game and the raw pleasure of playing – a product of soaring commercialisation and rising ticket prices – football remains, almost ironically, the most accessible and popular sport in the world
Amidst the ongoing problems that have plagued the game for decades, Amazon’s venture into the wonderful world of football proves a refreshing look at the beauty of sport and its ability to transcend boundaries of class and culture. Despite increasing rifts between the professional game and the raw pleasure of playing – a product of soaring commercialisation and rising ticket prices – football remains, almost ironically, the most accessible and popular sport in the world, a testament to its simplicity and reluctance to be tarnished by the bureaucracies that surround it.
Crowds roar, tackles fly and tears flow. Even if you’re not one of the 265 million fans across the globe, This Is Football offers something to admire about the beautiful game. Unless you’re Cristiano Ronaldo.
This Is Football is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video