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Where Is Soccer's Version Of Ken Burns?

Tonight, Ken Burns debuts his new documentary on PBS stations around the United States on the topic of baseball. The new documentary, “The Tenth Inning,” examines the tumultuous story of the national pastime from the 1990s to the present day.

But my question is, where is soccer version’s of Ken Burns?

As far as I know, there isn’t one. There are a few historians of the game such as Simon Inglis, an accomplished author, David France, a historian and philanthropist, Peter Lupson, an author, and Dave Twydell, who specializes in writing about the history of the game that is sometimes forgotten, whether that’s non-league or lower league clubs or old football grounds. But none of them are filmmakers. But just as Burns dissected the history of baseball in his award-winning 1994 documentary entitled simply Baseball, there exists a gigantic opportunity for a similar filmmaker to capture the history of soccer of the 20th century.

For a country such as the United Kingdom that is filled with so much history, I’ve often wondered why there are few new articles and books about soccer that come out of that country. I’m sure there are so many mysteries that have yet to be solved, or stories that have been untold. And the shame of the matter is that some of the legends of the game who lived during the historic times of the 20th century are dying. As each year passes, another chapter of living history perishes.

If you’re familiar with any filmmakers that specialize in documenting the history of soccer that I’m not aware of, please post your suggestions in the comments section below. It’s exciting times experiencing the day-to-day of modern football, but there is so much history that precedes this that in my opinion is even more exciting, if it can only be told.

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  1. boringarsenal

    October 1, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    Bear in mind that only baseball gets this sentimental treatment, in spite of the fact that Professional football is more or less, the American game of choice. Baseball has always attracted a sentiment bordering on idolatry in America. The NFL and NBA have seldom given much thought to their history. largely due to the fact that both leagues were mere afterthoughts in the American consciousness until the mid to late 20th century.
    However, it doesn’t explain the lack of a living history for football/soccer. A history of the FA and the development of the league system of play in England would be worth one expansive documentary. Perhaps it’s the class issue that prevents football/soccer from being codified in the same fashion as baseball; the intellectual class has for years swooned over baseball, and has its poets and prose writers. Football/soccer, largely the pursuit of working class males in Europe, is ignored by the chattering classes and thus, has no writer or filmmaker to recite the stories of it’s vivid past.

  2. unclesand

    September 29, 2010 at 12:31 am

    the written equivalent of ken burns would be david goldblatt’s ‘the ball is round’, a monumental achievement included, i see, in your book recommendations.

  3. Scott

    September 28, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    An EPL version of NFL films would be fantastic….

  4. Tony Butterworth

    September 28, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    But that doesn’t explain the overall lack of documentaries. There aren’t any quality documentaries on football in England or Manchester United or The World Cup for example.

    It’s definitely an overlooked area.

    I still say there are plenty of articles, mags like Four Four Two and their brethren cover a lot of ground.

  5. Cricketlover

    September 28, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    I think Attaturk’s comments above are right on the money. Doing a documentary on baseball only requires researching the sport in essentially one country. The same cannot be said of football/soccer. It would be a daunting task to do one covering the sport that spans all corners of the globe. A more achievable documentary would most likely have to be about the history of the sport in one country or perhaps one continent. Still, one has to ask why no one has taken on such a task as Ken Burns has. Perhaps someone in Europe can study how Ken Burns works and apply his methods to doing a documentary about football in Europe, the birthplace of the sport.

  6. The Gaffer

    September 28, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Maybe it’s time for Simon Kuper to get into filmmaking? I could envision his ideas working out really well for film.

    The Gaffer

  7. ossie's dream

    September 28, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Good question.

    There is no one quite like Ken Burns. It’s that simple. I cannot think of another documentary filmmaker who regularly takes on these big themes that define and shape a nation. Broadly speaking, Burns’ documentaries cover the American Experience. I know of no English director, to pick one country, who does the same.

    Maybe no one shares Burns’ vision. Maybe its his relationship with PBS and the funding he receives that gets these documentaries made.

    • The Gaffer

      September 28, 2010 at 11:28 am

      I agree Ossie. There are plenty of fantastic English football authors but very few, if any, very good football documentary filmmakers. Burns captures something that would be possible to emulate for English football, but it hasn’t been accomplished yet.

      The Gaffer

  8. Attaturk

    September 28, 2010 at 11:00 am

    I think part of the reason that “Baseball” is so good, while a soccer documentary would be more difficult is that like 3 of the 4 major American team sports they are fairly indigenous to one culture (true they’ve gone more international since), the same culture that grew to be the predominant power of the 20th Century.

    Baseball and it’s evolution in the 20th Century (the American League was born last in 1901 and the World Series promptly followed) tracks with America’s growth from large but isolated nation into integrated military and economic superpower, the story of baseball is the story of the United States in microcosm for one entire century uninterrupted.

    Soccer on the other hand spread promptly everywhere, even though the world of the “sports professional” pretty much occurred at the dawn of the 20th century in the entirety of the western world, but England, unlike America, correspondingly saw a nation go from preeminent World Power to a century of diminishment, even as soccer as a sport grew to the point England lost it’s leadership there as well — at least when it came to producing the best players.

  9. Tony Butterworth

    September 28, 2010 at 10:34 am

    I understand your comments on documentaries but to say there are “few articles and books” is completely wrong. There are shelves and shelves of UK book stores filled with obscure stories on every aspect of football, history, lower leagues, comedy, anecdotal etc. etc.

    • The Gaffer

      September 28, 2010 at 11:23 am

      Good feedback Tony. There are definitely “few articles” but many books, I agree. But even in the UK, you have to go to the specialty book shops to find the wide display of good English football books. The last time I went to the book store chains in the UK, most of the football books on sale were hoolie porn.

      I definitely miss Sportspages in London, which was always one of my destinations when I returned to the Big Smoke on holiday.

      The Gaffer

  10. bradjmoore48

    September 28, 2010 at 10:33 am

    The History of Football/Soccer is a pretty solid series. I seem to remember Ken Burn’s Baseball series was documented chronologically, while the History of Football is more thematic. The first episode regards the origins of the game, no surprise, but episode 2 then shows the Football Cultures of Ghana, Spain, the US and Iran, before continuing onto the evolution of the European game. It continues into other areas such as “The Dark Side,” which looks at hooliganism, “The Media” and then concludes with segments on Africa and Asia/Middle East. I would recommend it.

    Note: If you do buy the series in the US, make sure to buy “The History of Soccer” version because the “History of Football” is in PAL format, not NTSC. I can only play my discs on my Xbox360, but not my other DVD/Blu-ray players.

  11. Dan

    September 28, 2010 at 7:59 am

    Soccer’s version came out in the US in 2003 on DVD titled “History of Soccer: The Beautiful Game.”
    It was a 7 disc set.

    • The Gaffer

      September 28, 2010 at 8:52 am

      Has anyone seen the video, and is it anywhere close to the quality of Ken Burns? I know there are plenty of soccer documentaries out there, but most of them are average.

      The Gaffer

      • jeffk

        September 28, 2010 at 8:56 am

        Yeah, it’s very good, particularly if you want historical context for the sport and for the evolution of the modern game. Really excellent. I bought the set in ’03 and wouldn’t consider parting with it.

    • john r

      September 28, 2010 at 9:41 am

      Ive got both baseball and Soccer: the beautiful game. I do believe it is the closest thing soccer has to a Ken Burns documentary, but in my opinion, its not as good. Ive got no good reasons really why i think that Baseball is better, its just that for some reason, despite my love of soccer, i had a hard time getting into the soccer dvd like i did for Baseball. I think Soccer puts the same amount of information out there in the DVD, but i just dont think it flows as well as Baseball. That may just be due to the fact that Ken Burns is so good. I think Soccer is worthy of a watch by any soccer fan, but to me, it doesnt hold a candle to Baseball.

      • Gaz Hunt

        September 28, 2010 at 1:56 pm

        It’s very good. Very detailed and has a decent amount of original footage.

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