Amazon’s ‘Tottenham Hotspur’ Docu Series Was a Harbinger of European Super League Ambitions

In retrospect, the opening of “All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur” tells us everything we need to know about the mentality and calculations that led to the team announcing the hiring and firing of mercurial coach Jose Mourinho, and its part in a proposed European “Super League” that has the entire soccer world in panicked shambles.

The Amazon Prime series, released last fall, opens with narrator Tom Hardy gravely intoning the club’s history, which stretches back over a hundred years. (For the uninitiated, this astonishing breadth of time isn’t even unusual for a British football team, some of which date back to the 1860s.) While Tottenham Hotspur had its glory days, the team has more recently become known for providing flashy football that makes for great moments, if not many actual championship wins. But that has nonetheless made the team extremely important in its corner of North London, where it, like many other teams in the United Kingdom’s various leagues, boasts a fiercely devoted fanbase spanning generations.

If you’re unsure what a “Super League” entails and why it’s so controversial, the crux of the situation is this: for decades, European clubs have played in leagues without any guarantees. The U.K.’s Premier League, for example, includes 20 teams, with the top teams afforded chances to compete in competitive spinoff leagues like the Champions League and Europa while the bottom three get “relegated” to a lesser tier where they must try to fight their way back into the Premier League. (Any American fan unfamiliar with the concept of relegation might’ve gotten a handy primer in “Ted Lasso,” the Apple TV Plus series about a scrappy club struggling to hold its place among richer giants.) The Super League would allow a small selection of teams to play against each other without fear of losing out, no matter how badly they might do, while closing the door to any other “smaller” teams who fancy themselves up to the challenge.

Tottenham Hotspur has rarely been in danger of relegation, but they’ve struggled to crack the most elite competitions. Despite their best efforts, Spurs have never been considered on the same level as a team like Manchester United. From owner Daniel Levy’s perspective, this would change after joining the Super League, where they’re guaranteed to compete every year no matter what, alongside teams like Man U and Spain’s Real Madrid. In other words: they could stop being a scrappy David to become a fearsome Goliath all their own.

In their initial statement on why they decided to form the Super League, the 11 European club owners insisted that the pandemic, which devastated the economy of live sports, hastened its necessity. Re-watching something like “All or Nothing,” however, it’s abundantly clear that these clubs and their billionaire owners have been preparing for something like it for far longer.

The Amazon series opens at the start of the 2019-2020 season with Tottenham Hotspur at a crucial crossroads. The team had defied expectations that summer to make it to the final of the coveted Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious competition, and construction had finally been completed on a brand new stadium that cost the club a whopping £1 billion. (Yes, billion with a B.) Levy even excitedly describes his plans to use the stadium for many events outside football, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell taking in the scene for an exhibition American football game. All the while, Hardy informs the audience that “in the 21st century, the club has been transformed,” with “a team full of global superstars” to match its stunning new headquarters. In so doing, the series sets up its desired arc for Spurs as an underdog club proving its elite status within the first few minutes of the first episode.

But that fateful season didn’t exactly go according to plan. After losing that Champions League final to Liverpool, Spurs absolutely cratered in their domestic Premier League, plummeting to 14th place. Within the first half-hour of this 10-episode series, Spurs owner Daniel Levy and the board make a huge decision: to fire head coach Mauricio Pochettino and bring in the notorious Jose Mourinho, a serial winner whom Levy had reportedly been chasing for years.

In my initial (embarrassingly glowing) review of “All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur,” I focused largely on the arrival and impact of Mourinho, who not only makes for great TV, but knows it. For decades, Mourinho has been at the center of some of football’s most exciting success stories and explosive controversies. Rarely does a press conference go by without him saying something quotable; his sideline antics are infinitely meme-able; his finite patience is the stuff of legend. In one of the most immediately memorable scenes in “All or Nothing,” for example, Mourinho is setting up his new office, laying out trophies and photos of all his previous successes, as a news report about his hiring plays in the background. He listens to the pundits debate his merits until one suggests that he’s “past his best,” at which point Mourinho simply gets up and turns off the TV with a gruff “fuck off.”

In another, Mourinho brings in star striker Harry Kane for a frank conversation about the future in which he demonstrates exactly how savvy he is about his own brand. Acknowledging that Kane wants to be on the superstar level of footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Mourinho says that he is “a little bit like that as a coach,” and that he can use his knowhow to help Kane gain a higher profile. (Not for nothing: Kane subsequently became one of the League’s highest scorers, and is currently leading the competition for the “Golden Boot” goals award.)

As much as Mourinho can resent the outsized attention he gets from the press, he also knows exactly how to leverage it, and the Amazon cameras were there to document how every step of the way. In his time at Tottenham Hotspur, Mourinho’s tongue-in-cheek Instagram also gained 2 million followers ready to praise and/or deride him, depending on the day. It makes sense that Amazon largely promoted “All or Nothing” series with Mourinho as its face, because millions of football fans across the world already know his face.

Neither the Amazon crew nor the Hotspur team could know exactly how tumultuous the ensuing season would be, especially once the pandemic halted games and made it impossible for fans to flood the shiny new stadium. But the series nonetheless demonstrates the club’s ambitions to be mentioned in the same breadth of the elite teams that now make up the proposed Super League — and to make for exciting entertainment, besides.

The day after the Super League was announced, Tottenham Hotspur fired Mourinho. He had been at the club for just over 18 months, struggling to get results out of a team through the pandemic and a weak defensive line that couldn’t nail his particular style of football, which became a particular sticking points in recent weeks. For as bombastic as Mourinho can be as a personality, his football is extremely tactical, defensive and calculating. He prefers a counter-attack to an all-out offensive, preferring to lock in the game with smart goals before keeping the other team from scoring. Diehard Spurs fans, stuck watching the games at home, were furious that their “beautiful game” had become something more cerebral than outright thrilling.

It’s hard to say if Mourinho would have done better at Spurs given more time and money to shape the team in his image. But it’s undeniable that once the novelty of his hiring wore off and the gameplay remained stagnant, he had, in a sense, worn out his immediate use. It’s difficult to imagine that the timing of Mourinho’s hiring, in a year set to be filmed by a rapt camera crew, was entirely accidental, or that his firing, a day after a contentious announcement and a week before a cup final, was entirely random. Mourinho needed a team to coach, and the Spurs club needed to bump up its profile. The two goals aligned perfectly — until they didn’t.

Looking back at the Amazon series with the benefit of hindsight, the series is almost more fascinating than it was originally. As with every other “All or Nothing” series — which has covered teams across rugby, soccer and football — the Hotspur edition purports to be an unprecedented look into the sport’s day-to-day operations. Instead, it ends up being a valuable encapsulation of how money and optics inform most everything the club does. From pushing the stadium to allow fans even as the pandemic worsened, to affording Pochettino a single interview after five and a half years of coaching, to the board making transfer decisions without the head coach as if balancing a checkbook instead of a team, “All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur” does, in fact, make plain how the franchise runs. In light of the Super League, however, they painted a far more unflattering picture than they realized.

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