“All in the Juventus team have come to expect more wins, but nothing in the game of football is certain,” intones the narrator of First Team: Juventus. Netflix’s first football documentary, the series takes us inside the world of the winning Italian team, promising to shed light on their wins on the pitch, their culture of winning off the pitch and did we mention all the winning?
There’s been lots of speculation over the years about Netflix’s sporting plans, and whether it would ever show live events. The streaming service, though, has repeatedly insisted that’s not its intent, and the arrival of this documentary as the Premier League rights are auctioned off to broadcasters makes that clear: rather than play to football fans, Netflix is aiming to repeat the success of its NHL documentary, Last Chance U, a series with appeal to fans and non-fans alike. Although First Team: Juventus shoots for that same target, though, it doesn’t score.
As a first of its kind, First Team: Juventus does a remarkable job of getting access to the Italian team’s world, from the locker rooms to the board rooms. Old legends turn up alongside current players, managers speak to the camera as do strikers, but the problem is that they all say the same thing: Juventus is a great club full of winners. There’s an underdog arc to their narrative, as we join the club in the wake of them losing the Champions League final 4-1 to Real Madrid, but there’s little question about whether they will bounce back at the start of the 2017-18 season – the biggest failure in the first half of their season is losing their first home league game in a couple of years.
It’s that lack of drama that really hurts First Team’s chances at a televisual hat-trick; compared to Last Chance U, where every match result directly impacted the lives and future prospects of each college football player, Juventus has it easy. There’s lack of grit in the grass, no matter how stylishly it’s shot.
The visuals are certainly impressive, and the series does a strong job of editing 90-minute matches into condensed bursts of excitement from every angle available in the stadium – football can be a beautiful game, but it is not the most action-packed of sports. But slick goals and a wave of triumph can only sustain a programme so far. The filmmakers clearly know it, and introduce a welcome portion of human interest to fill up the substitute bench, from the challenges and tensions of Gonzalo Higuain’s transfer to Juventus from Naples – the team go back to his old club for a game – to Claudio Marchisio making his coffee and going back to his school to reflect on his career. (“May this shirt and my story shape your dreams,” he writes on a shirt pinned to the wall, with a confidence that would be arrogant if it weren’t accompanied by such an earnest heart.)
Most rewarding is a glimpse of the young son of one player who thinks he can be the next Gianlugi Buffon – a goalkeeping veteran who may be facing retirement this season. It’s a sweet slice of inspiration that resonates more than the pressures on Paulo Dybala, after he misses an important penalty. But there is no answer to the Buffon retirement rumours, just as there is no conclusion to Juventus’ quest to reach Champions League victory again; this is a series of two halves, with just three episodes to give us a look at the opening months of the current season.
Such a narrow focus could be balanced by a more candid look at the challenges facing a modern football team, from family pressures to transfer gossip and media scrutiny. But First Team’s access seems to be in exchange for a uniformly positive portrait of the club – this is no mention of the 2006 match fixing scandal that saw the club demoted to Serie B from Serie A. The result is a window onto a league that doesn’t get much publicity on the world stage (Amazon is currently making a similar series about Manchester City); it’s just a shame that the window is so rose-tinted. Nothing in the game of football is certain, we’re told, but more wins? That’s exactly what the programme expects.
First Team: Juventus is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.