First, a programming note, as they say. On Wednesday Canada will play Panama in Panama City (Sportsnet, 10 pm.), the final game of its World Cup qualifying campaign. In case you’ve been asleep, Canada has already qualified and will play at the World Cup in Qatar in November. On Friday, a draw will take place to determine who the men’s national team will face in the first round in Qatar. This is not, however, a redundant game. Every win counts.
Next, a note to readers. If you want to write and tell me you don’t like soccer and it’s a stupid sport, fine. I’m not caring. I’m not going to reply and give you context, tutelage or indoctrination. You’re on your own and the next nine months might be a bit hard for you. Educate yourself. And with that in mind, here are two starters, on the English game only. In the next while we’ll move on to the rest of the planet, it being the world’s game.
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Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League (streams Amazon Prime Video) is a first-rate, four-part series on the beginning and evolution of the Premier League in England. Made by BBC TV, it is far more coherent and way better journalism than most of what is found about soccer on Amazon Prime Video.
It begins smartly, emphasizing that most revolutions in art or sport begin because economics and technology meet at the right moment. In the 1980s, as it is accurately told here, English soccer was in a mess. Trouble on the terraces, hooliganism and inertia in boardrooms meant the game was in serious decline. Attendance was decreasing. Then a breakaway group of top teams, with their eye on money and more TV exposure, created the Premier League. What would have been a fanciful creation was carried forward by technology. We see news clips of viewers being told that, by heavens, you could soon buy a satellite dish and watch all kinds of channels.
Into this area stepped Rupert Murdoch, his media empire needing big, shiny entertainment to sell his Sky TV service. Soccer saved Sky and Sky saved the Premier League. Many of the key participants, including the league’s main movers, great players of the era and Sky executives, are interviewed at length. There are plenty of rueful reminiscences and a lot of blunt talk. But it’s underlined that it was the on-field drama of that first season (1992/93) that actually produced the dynamic that would turn the adventure into an epic transformation.
A key thread in the early episodes is the rebirth and rise of Manchester United. The club came to epitomize youth, glamour and a cosmopolitan approach. At the end of the first episode David Beckham appears, the harbinger of glory days to come, but he’s not the player who dominates. That’s Eric Cantona, the mercurial French player who saw himself as an artist, and still does. The Premier League gave him the canvas. What you’ll learn: The link between soccer club and community is like a sacred covenant, but money changes everything.
Rooney (streams Amazon Prime Video) is also better than most soccer documentaries about players. It is less adulatory about Wayne Rooney than it is a threnody for the player’s raw talent and where it led him. A product of the star-making Premier League machinery, he is also the product of the sometimes blighted Liverpool suburb of Croxteth. In a documentary over which he has control, Rooney is surprisingly candid about his life and career. As is his wife, Colleen, and members of their families. Made when Rooney was about to end his career as a player in early 2021, the doc has a ton of personal footage, and a lot of personal meaning. Much of what Wayne Rooney says is downright confessional.
As both he and Colleen say, he was thrust into adulthood at age 17, and he carried the expectations of an entire country at 18, playing for England at Euro 2004. I attended and covered every game Rooney played there, and he was electrifying to watch. Here he says, “I remember at the tournament, at 18, thinking to myself, ‘I’m the best player in the world, there’s no one better than me.’ I felt like if we were gonna win the tournament, it’s because of me. And If we don’t win it, it’s because of me.”
Worshipped when he was scoring goals and dismissed as a thug and an oaf when he was caught misbehaving by the tabloid press, Rooney has a few regrets and is admirably plainspoken about them. What you’ll learn: England relied for too long on the rough-hewn talent of men such as Rooney.
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