A shallow portrait in black and white / by Justin Salhani


If you had to sum up Juventus for the casual football fan: black and white stripes, the most decorated side in Italy, agonizingly close to Champions League glory. Now imagine doing the same for Real Madrid and Manchester United -- but you wouldn’t, would you, because those clubs (and to speak more precisely, those brands) are so world-renowned it would be difficult to find someone with even a passing interest in sports, let alone a football fan, that could not at least make the basic associations of Real Madrid, white, and trophies, and Manchester United, red, and trophies.

This is the club leadership’s vision for Juventus: that the casual fan make this association of Juventus, black-and-white, and trophies. To this end, the club invited Netflix to make a four-part docuseries covering the 2017-2018 season. Per a Juventus press release (emphasis added):

“Collaborations of this kind confirm our passion for innovation and being, in every sense, a sport entertainment brand. In this way, we are determined to reach Bianconeri fans across the world and millions of Netflix users, who thanks to this docuseries can get to know Juventus from every angle.”

Fans will notice, however, that several angles are missing. In the locker room: the bad blood between coach Massimiliano Allegri and key defender Leonardo Bonucci, who departed in a hurry for AC Milan at summer’s end; the reported unhappiness of the club’s number 10, Paulo Dybala; the abuse striker Gonzalo Higuain suffers due to his weight. Off the field: racist behavior by certain elements of the club’s fan base, which have caused Juve to play home games to empty stands in recent years; alleged mafia influence within the clubs Ultras, which resulted in a high-profile investigation and a one-year ban for club President Andrea Agnelli. (Agnelli does feature in the series, addressing the team in advance of the intra-squad scrimmage.) Rather than a balanced account of the club’s season and its history -- which we are reminded time and again is of paramount importance -- the series is instead a polished corporate product, an extended advertisement.

Black and white, black and white, black and white; history, history, history; excellence, excellence, excellence. One might also add morality and family values. The viewer is to absorb these cues and associate them with Juventus.

Off the pitch, players are seen exhibiting the qualities that make one a good father or son. One quickly realizes that a player profile signals that the player will figure prominently in the next game, that they will demonstrate excellence. This narrative scheme quickly shows its limitations, however.

We fail to hear from interesting characters such as Giorgio Chiellini, whose reputation as a classic, hard-tackling defender belies his intellectual side (he holds a Master's Degree in Business Administration from the University of Turin, and his dissertation was titled “The Business Model of Juventus Football Club in an International Context”). Given the emphasis on the end of Buffon’s career, we might expect to hear from goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny, who must be grappling with what it means to be Buffon’s heir apparent. Instead, we meet a group of pundits from the Italian media. I found myself frequently frustrated at these omissions, which were glaring enough to distract from the narrative.

The club’s new slogan, in English, is “Life is a matter of black and white.” Quite. So is the docuseries. The closest the series gets to grey is when it considers the end of Buffon’s career and the helplessness the club’s older Italian players feel when they realize they’ve missed their last World Cup. These vignettes at least tug at the heartstrings of Italy and Juventus fans, but they form only a small part of the series and, notably, are removed from Juve’s corporate image, again reminding the viewer that the series is an exercise in public relations.

One imagines the filmmakers pushing to include less agreeable matters in the series, only to have such ideas quashed by either Juventus’ or Netflix’s management. For both sides, the series needs to be an uncontroversial success. For Juventus, it’s a digestible, G-rated advertisement that’s guaranteed a global audience. For Netflix, any buzz the series generates increases the chances that in years to come, it will be granted access to those Manchester Uniteds, Real Madrids, and Barcelonas that Juventus longs to join as a premier global brand. One does not simply make such a series without painstakingly negotiating for access to players and facilities, after all.

The series is far from bad. Rather, it is frustrating because it is close to being very good. The viewer can almost name the forces keeping it from being so: sponsor requirements, agents denying access to players, rights to shoot game footage, and the like. It’s good fun, but nothing more than that.

Words Ben Anderson