The Best Football You’ll See On Netflix

by | Jul 29, 2020

Like many – perhaps most – European football fans, my knowledge of South American club football is woefully lacking in substance. The national teams are not an issue. Global televised coverage of the World Cup for substantially more than half a century has seen to that. But the club game is a different matter. I could probably name you a dozen or so clubs from the “Big Two” of Argentina and Brazil as well as the same from the continent’s other eight countries, but really that’s about it, and it’s entirely likely that it’s the same for you, as well.

This isn’t surprising, of course. South American club football has never been a regular part of UK television schedules. For those of us over the age of forty, pretty much the only South American club football we saw came in January, when ITV would show the Intercontinental Cup match from Tokyo, and even that was only if an English club had won the European Cup and subsequently took part in it (which Nottingham Forest pointedly didn’t do in 1979, leading to UEFA making doing so a stipulation of European Cup entry from 1980 on – Forest had to go the following year, losing to Nacional of Uruguay.)

Even in the stream-friendly internet driven world of the 21st century, following football from another continent remains a bind. All clubs and leagues have YouTube channels, but all highlights are divided up into individual matches, and it can be hard work to try and dip your toe in and test the waters. It’s almost as though they only expect the truly dedicated to want to get involved, and granulise their content accordingly.

European club football has been shown around the world for decades, now, but the South American game has not often been afforded the same luxury – and certainly not the same profile – here, so perhaps us lumpen, potato-crunching Europeans can be forgiven our ignorance. Now, though, we have a little less of an excuse, because Netflix has put up a three part series which tells the story of twenty years of it in Argentina in a style that really does have to be seen to be believed.

Especial 20 Años de Fútbol de Primera is ostensibly a 20th anniversary celebration of a weekly television highlights show that ended up running from 1985 until 2009. Over the course of three episodes, each around an hour long, we’re told the story of the first twenty years of Futbol de Primera, and of Argentinian domestic football at the same time. And whilst the biggest clubs – Boca Juniors, River Plate and Independiente – shine the brightest, there’s also plenty of space for others, such as San Lorenzo, Velez Sarsfield and Argentinos Juniors.

There are, of course, plenty of familiar faces. Marcelo Bielsa appears within the first half of the first episode, whilst Carlos Tevez, Claudio Caniggia, Javier Saviola and Diego Simeone are amongst those showing off their lavish skills in scratchy videos from the past. And they’re frequently doing so under circumstances that might charitably be described as “trying.” The pitches are atrocious, and matches are played in seething tinderboxes that frequently conflagrate into violence. To its credit, Futbol de Primera never shied away from that. There’s an undercurrent of aggression to the entire three hours.

Two names hang the most heavy over the first episode. The first is obvious. Diego Armando Maradona. Maradona’s still in Europe at the start of the first episode, but he returns to Boca Juniors while he still just about has it, and Futbol de Primera shows his penalty kicks, his frequent penalty misses (along with goalkeeping mistakes, penalty misses are a constant stream of amusement for the commentators through the entire twenty years), and his eventual retirement. We get a hint of the hysteria that surrounds Maradona in Argentina, up to and including the praying for his health when that hung in the balance at the turn of the century.

The other star of the first episode is the Paraguayan goalkeeper Jose Chilavert. Chilavert is occasionally derided as a gimmick of a goalkeeper, but his free kicks were superb when they hit the target, and what might be perceived as his recklessness in pushing into attacking positions was compensated for by his pace in being able to get back, whilst there’s plenty of evidence that he was an excellent goalkeeper, as well. His size and sheer presence doubtless helped in such a confrontational environment.

To describe that environment as “confrontational” would be something of an understatement, though. Teams have to take to and leave pitches under police guard, on one occasion under police riot shields, as missiles rained down from the sky, a Huracan fan is killed before a game, one team finds that a grenade has been thrown into their changing room. And it feels as though much of this comes from a mania for the game, both for winning and for doing so in style. It feels as though the whole game is treated almost like professional wrestling – in some respects an ongoing, competitive soap opera in which the players, coaches, fans, club owners and broadcasters all play their role, with the broadcasters seeming to have access to all areas, all the time.

The lead roles, however, are played by the coaches, whether we’re talking about the perpetually aggrieved-looking Larry David-a-like Carlo Bianchi telling everyone to basically get stuffed with what looks like a severe cut on his bald pate from a missile thrown from the crowd, or of Carlos Bilardo trying to hide what looks very much like a very large glass of wine from a reporter inside a stadium on a match day by claiming “it’s Gatorade and water.” The coaches grumble and grimace their way through post matches pressers, carrying the burden of the addict who knows that their life will be miserable until they taste the sweet, sweet high of winning a match again. They’re the glue that hold all three episodes together.

Futbol de Primera comes with subtitles that occasionally feel as though they may have been written by someone who wasn’t a native English speaker, but perhaps the best way to enjoy this short series is without subtitles, as an audio-visual experience, with only the occasional familiar name or face floating in and out. It’s football from the other side of the world presenting to itself, and it’s as mad as a box of frogs. Especial 20 Años de Fútbol de Primera is three hours of your life that you won’t want to get back.