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Around half-way through lockdown I moved away from my drama-based box sets (Narcos Mexico, Line Of Duty, Lilyhammer all done - closing in on finishing Homeland and Ozark) to help get my sports fix by switching to sporting documentaries and docuseries, mostly on Netflix, so I thought I’d run through how I found them.
A film critic I am certainly not so I’ve not gone into a flowery prose, just offering a guide to what I think is worth some of your time - therefore just a brief overview of 12 sporting programmes that have helped to keep me sane over the last couple of months.
Not being a fan of basketball at all, it’s fair to say that I took a bit of persuading to watch The Last Dance but I am so glad that I did as the lookback at Michael Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls made for compulsive viewing, notably when he allowed the cameras to follow him and the team around for the 1997 season - their last dance with the owners having announced in advance that the nucleus of their x5-winning NBA team would be broken up at the end of that season. The Americans do this kind of documentary so brilliantly. It wasn’t all about Jordan, a sporting icon who I knew nothing about beforehand except that he was rather good at shooting baskets but I found him an utterly-driven and ruthless character (not unlike the world’s best in other sports) not unknown for holding long grudges based on his editing of the programme which didn’t go down well with others heavily featured in the series after they had watched it, notably his main wingman, Scottie Pippen, who has since described himself as “beyond livid” of how he was portrayed. The excesses of fellow team mate, Dennis Rodman, better known to some people for being on Celebrity Big Brother (me at least until this series) were also an entertaining side show. Jordan also likes a bet so he went up further in my estimation! Surprisingly poor putting stroke though. Even if you have zero interest in basketball like myself, I urge you to give it a go as not one of the ten programmes disappoints. I’ll give it a 9/10 on Jones Ratings.
Most of the storylines were about the Bulls’ continued success but, on the other hand, if what you really want is a tale of relentless misery that even trumps Eastenders, then I heartily recommend the first series of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, which covers their 2017/18 season and made all the more compelling viewing already knowing their fate in the Championship having been relegated from the Premier League the previous season. The passion/anger of the fans whilst enduring the worst season in their history is perfectly captured alongside the anguish of the management and players as their season spirals from disaster to disaster. I am currently half-way through the second series of their following season under new ownership which brings a whole new dynamic to the club (and series) which so far has been based around whether they could keep their star young striker, Josh Maja. I must admit that after watching 13 episodes so far, I have now formed a soft spot for the Black Cats so will be keeping an eye on their progress and wish them well, even if a third series wasn’t commissioned. Another 9/10 on Jones Ratings.
Sticking with football for a few more programmes, having attended a game at the Camp Nou a couple of years ago and being a fan of city of Barcelona in general, Barca Dreams was an enjoyable watch telling the history and philosophies of the club from its origins over 100 years ago in a documentary lasting a little over two hours up until when it was released in 2015. It was disappointing that the Bobby Robson years were quickly skimmed over but if you haven’t seen Bobby Robson More Than A Manager, which I had the pleasure of watching last year, make a point of putting that higher up your must-watch list of the two. The bigger storylines were obviously the Johann Cruyff and Pep Guardiola-led teams. There are two similar programmes on my hit list, Sir Alex Ferguson: Secrets of Success and First Team: Juventus, though the latter is a docuseries on their 2017/18 season rather than a history of the club. I suspect it will be a bit different from Sunderland ‘Til I Die! As far as Jones Ratings is concerned, Bobby Robson More Than A Manager weighed in with another 9/10 and Barca Dreams an acceptable 6/10.
Only eight nations have won the World Cup and Becoming Champions tells the story of each of them in order, starting with Uruguay in 1930 and ending with Spain in 2010, not just for the years when they lifted the trophy but how they fared from World Cup to World Cup. As such, there is some repetition throughout the series with interviews with many of the main players and managers but if you like a bit of nostalgia and enjoy football, it’s very easy to dip in and out of being a gentle watch rather than having to give it your full concentration. The edition featuring Argentina was my favourite, partly as their ticker-tape World Cup was the first that I remembered but also their runs to the final in 1986 and 1990 and their less dignified time in England in 1966 were well covered. 7/10.
There are a number of Maradona documentaries knocking about (there is another recent one based on his time in Mexico after he retired as a player being aired presently which I’ll get round to) but it was the series on Netflix released last year concentrating on his time when based at Napoli, simply entitled Diego Maradona, that attracted my interest focussing on his dark life off the field in addition to his genius on it. How he turned that club around was extraordinary. The Italia ’90 World Cup also featured heavily and how Argentina’s semi-final against Italy being played in Napoli forced many fans to choose between their club hero and the national side. After his final penalty knocked out the hosts in the shootout, there was a rather different reception in store for him in Rome and the final against Germany, which is when it all started to go wrong for him. For all his faults, after watching this series can I admit to quite liking the guy? An 8/10 for me.
I must admit that I was hoping for more on the two-hour documentary, Ronaldo, on Sky Atlantic. In fact, the Piers Morgan interview with him gave away so much more. That is no reflection on the best footballer that I have ever seen and perhaps the timing wasn’t the best being back in 2014 when Real Madrid were not the dominant force in Spain and he was playing whilst injured during the World Cup. Much of the documentary is about his personal relationships with his son who he brings up without his mother, his agent and mother. As would expect his dedication and professionalism in all areas of his life shines through. Let’s give it a 6/10.
Back to Netflix and a change of sport for The Least Expected Day: Inside The Movistar Team 2019. Unlike with The Last Dance, I’d say that you would need an interest in professional cycling to fully enjoy this look back at how one of the biggest teams functions, giving a fascinating insight into how they oversaw the three grand tours of last year (Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta Espana). Given how many leaders they have on the road with Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde all vying to be the top man backed up by Richard Carapaz who in the end proved to be their number one guy, unlike most teams which fully get behind one leader, it was always going to be interesting to see how they tried to manage the internal competition to be top dog. Movistar certainly didn’t disappoint in proving what a dysfunctional outfit they really were! Prior to this documentary I was a fan of Landa to the extent that I had bet on him to win the TDF the previous year but the one thing I learned betting-wise from watching this series is that I wouldn’t touch him with a bargepole for any other grand tours. He simply is no leader and doesn’t have it mentally. An 8/10 on Jones Ratings.
Having won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2017, Icarus had been on my radar for a while. Bryan Fogel is an elite amateur cyclist and journalist who plunges into a doping scandal involving the Russian scientist, Grigory Rodchencho, who went on to become one of Putin’s greatest whistle blowers. Officially he was the head of the state’s anti-doping laboratory but in reality he headed their state-sponsored Olympic drug programme and now lives in America under a new identity in protective custody having admitted the switching of dirty tests for clean samples from the Sochi Olympics in 2014. The first section of the film begins with Rodchencho providing Fogel with EPO in a way that will evade him from detection as an experiment in order that he could find out the benefits to his own performance in elite amateur competition. If you enjoyed the Lance Armstrong saga and resulting documentary, The Armstrong Lie (a must watch for even non-cycling fans), then you should find this equally as riveting as it is a drugs cheating documentary rather than placing a strong accent of the sport of cycling. 8/10.
I rarely watch any of the documentaries on the racing channels but I made an exception for an edition of This Racing Life on RacingTV having read plenty of positive feedback on Twitter for the story of Fred Archer - A Tragic Hero. Written and very well presented by David Yates, I really enjoyed his style for this kind of programme and I hope that he does more. Apart from being the dominant jockey of his era who was a 13-times champion and being aware that he committed suicide before he turned 30, that’s all I knew about Archer so his tale was both enlightening and interesting. It might even tempt me to a trip to the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket where there is much memorabilia on the man himself. If you haven’t got a subscription to RacingTV, it can be viewed on YouTube and weighs in with an 8/10.
Earlier this week I finished off Cricket Fever: Mumbai Indians. Again, I’d say that unlike The Last Dance that you would need to have an interest in the sport to fully enjoy it and I’d argue that even more so than The Least Expected Day as, unlike in that cycling series which heavily focusses on individual personalities, this docuseries of the 2018 IPL season over two months is much more about the action on the field of the franchise with historically the best record who were attempting to defend their title. I won’t spoil the outcome but there are plenty of highs and lows. Some of the after-game team meetings were cringing to watch though - just exercises in stating the bleeding obvious. I didn’t think that their coach, Mahela Jayawardene, came out of it as one cricket’s great brains. The one thing that the series did do for me however, was to make the effort to watch some of it when it returns as the colour, noise and crowds were something else. Something to do on mornings after the Cheltenham Festival next year when hopefully crowds return. 6/10.
Losers started strongly with the opening programme telling the interesting story of former World Heavyweight Champion, British-born but American citizen, Michael Bentt, forced into the sport by his abusive father which at times got as dark as it can get, in a series of sportsmen and women who failed to live up to expectations. I surprised myself by finding the episode on the curling league in Canada to be an interesting tale and learned of the prejudice that Surya Bonaly faced in the world of figure skating but there were a few lightweight editions including one on husky racing, another on a desert endurance race and a bizarre edition on Torquay United that seemed out of context with the rest of the series. They saved the most notorious for last on Jean van de Velde’s final-hole collapse at The Open. The good thing about this series is that each episode is just half an hour so it helped to fill short voids in the day. 6/10.