Nipping at the heels of First Team: Juventus is another Netflix footy doc, although this one could be called The Last Team (I Would Play For). Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a riveting account of the once-storied franchise’s spectacular red-card tumble from grace.
The contrast between the clubs couldn’t be any more, um, black and white. Juventus (aka, “The Old Lady”, and “the Zebras”) were sent to a lower league as a punishment for their involvement in Italy’s notorious match-fixing scandal. Some called it a slap on the wrist, the team kept much of its talent, and was soon back destroying opponents in the Serie A and abroad. Sunderland, on the other hand, stunk like days-old herring.
Juve boasts a who’s who of talent, like Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world’s richest athletes. Sunderland’s got a who’s that? of talent. The Italian giant’s practice facilities are the Ritz-Carlton, Sunderland’s look more like a Holiday Inn.
A once proud side, Sunderland was demoted from the Premier League, where it battled the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, global billion-dollar behemoths who sign players with blank checks and whose jerseys can be spotted from Rio to Tokyo. Sunderland were punted down to League One, where the casual fan wouldn’t recognize many, if any, of their opponents — Scunthorpe United, Wycombe Wanderers, Southend United — some of whom have home grounds that seat a whopping 30,000 (!) fewer spectators (Sunderland play in the state-of-the-art 50k capacity Stadium of Light. Scunthorpe’s Glanford Park seats 9,000).
Sunderland ‘Til I Die chronicles the team’s struggle to keep a permanent manager (the team changes them like a hotel’s bed-sheets), acquire players during the transfer window, and develop talent from its youth ranks.
This becomes an increasing struggle, as the billionaire owner at the time didn’t feel like ponying up for top-tier talent. Drafting from within sometimes works for competent, thrifty, organizations, but more often than not players aren’t pitch-ready and are brought along too soon and flame out, or are poached by bigger fish once they show promise.
As Sunderland swim in increasingly smaller ponds, you get to see how the organization is squeezed. Their players speak out publicly, they lose their top striker, and become, according to one local cabbie, a “poisoned chalice.”
It’s a reminder to those of us weaned on North American sports, especially from this vantage point, to appreciate the foreboding specter of relegation. If there were lower leagues to be demoted to, the Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs of old would’ve been sent there. After all, this is a city with a rich tradition of stink.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die is the warts and all sports club doc that First Team: Juventus should’ve been.
It’s heartwarming, engrossing, and a reminder of the cultural continuity-affirming importance of professional sport.
***1/2 (out of 5)