Golazo: “Club de Cuervos” shows football at its worst

What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.
— Sir Bobby Robson (ghostwritten by George Caulkin)

Sir Bobby was one of the great managers of what we call “the beautiful game”, but in recent years, football has become more bountiful than beautiful. Multi-billion dollar television contracts and the entrance of super-rich club owners have meant that more money than ever is flooding the sport, and where there’s money, there’s corruption and manipulation; the sport’s governing body FIFA has been rocked by corruption allegations and agents are becoming increasingly powerful in the realm of transfer negotiations.

Club de Cuervos, Netflix’s first Spanish-only original series, hones in on the changing face of football. The show focuses on the Cuervos, a team based in the fictional Mexican city of Nuevo Toledo, and its owners, the wealthy Iglesias family. When the family patriarch and club president Salvador suddenly dies, his son Chava and daughter Isabel tussle over the presidency, with the fate of the club in their hands.

It’s a setup ripe for drama on and off the field, and there is lots of interpersonal drama, but Club de Cuervos works best when it covers some of the issues that have plagued the sport in recent years.

The unpopular new owner

We’ve seen scenarios similar to this play out in boardrooms and offices in every industry – when a new boss takes over, he or she decides to pursue a different vision that may be starkly different from the current reality.

In a sport where heritage is fiercely protected, where the fans have always been the heart of the clubs they support (see Sir Bobby’s quote), a new breed of multi-millionaire owners have threatened to erode the traditions of the clubs they have just taken control of. Take an owner who is hell-bent on changing his club’s name, or an owner who decided to change the club jersey’s iconic colours, or an owner who renames the club’s stadium to include his sportswear company’s name.

In Club de Cuervos, Chava Iglesias comes into his new role as club president with a grand vision: to elevate the Cuervos to the “Real Madrid of Latin America”. His measures to achieve that are reminiscent of real-life examples, including redesigning the team jersey, firing the long-serving coach and alienating the existing players with his new Spanish superstar signing.

Inevitably, the team’s performances decline and Chava is put under more and more pressure to step down as president. He may have the team’s interests at heart, but his presidency has been a disaster. And that’s a point that the show keeps coming back to.

Homosexuality

Chava’s new Spanish superstar signing is Aitor Cardone, a flamboyant player who is as promiscuous as he is talented. Aitor hits on Chava during a drug-filled night of revelry, and we find out that Aitor is pansexual. Chava cautions him not to pursue men to avoid controversy, but soon Aitor is photographed kissing his assistant, creating a worldwide media furore and mass protests from the club’s supporters.

Homosexuality in football is a sensitive subject. There are no openly gay players in men’s football, and those who have come out have only done so after retiring from their playing careers. Thomas Hitzlsperger, a former German international player who came out after his retirement, said:

The world of football still sees itself to some extent as a macho environment… The image of a gay player is typified by cliche and prejudice. The reality is rather different… People see a gay footballer as a contradiction in terms. And that is why virtually no professional player wants to expose himself to this kind of pressure.

The show treats this subject with balance and taste. Chava tells the media that they should focus on Aitor’s playing qualities instead of what he does off the field, but the city’s staunchly Catholic community disagree. I won’t spoil how this Aitor plot ends, but it’s certainly on a bittersweet note.

The super-agent

Chava’s signing of Aitor Cardone falls foul of the club’s original plan to sign three players that are represented by Eliseo Canales, an agent influential in the Mexican football scene. Eliseo takes his revenge on Chava and the Cuervos with several nefarious plots: he bribes three Cuervos players to fake injury and not play, he pays off referees to sabotage the Cuervos in matches, and he leaks Aitor’s controversial photographs to the media. In the season’s penultimate episode, he threatens Chava with the club’s ruin unless Chava lets him run the club in practice.

The character of Eliseo Canales is not that far-fetched in reality, because football agents have become absolutely crucial in today’s football landscape. Previously, clubs negotiated directly with players, but now agents have become a powerful intermediary between the clubs and players.

Look at this list of top football agents – the first name on the list is Jorge Mendes. Mendes is incredibly influential in today’s football scene. His clients read like a who’s who of football, and he has close relations with many top teams, including AS Monaco and Valencia CF. As Monaco’s vice-chairman Vadim Vasilyev says:

If you want to build a good project, you work with the best. And Jorge Mendes happens to be the best. He is passionate, he is hard working, he is a decent person. Look at the big clubs like Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid, where he has many players. And I think nobody complains about that.

Mendes and other football agents are here to stay in the modern football industry. As columnist Gabriele Marcotti puts it, until clubs trust each other more, middlemen like agents will always be needed.

The show itself

All this football talk is well and good, but what about Club de Cuervos as the show?

Apart from the football themes as discussed earlier, the show also delved into some family melodrama between the Iglesias siblings. I found the melodrama to be the weakest parts of the show, simply because Chava, the central character, seemed too much like a one-dimensional character.

The show also included sub-plots that were hit-and-miss. The sub-plot of Salvador’s ex-girlfriend coming forward claiming to be carrying Salvador’s child was definitely something I would expect to see in a telenovela, while general manager Felix’s struggle to stay loyal to the club was roté at best.

However, there were several sub-plots I really liked. The sub-plot of Tony (a young player on the Cuervos) trying to break into the first team was well-done, and the character development of several players like Moise and Potro was welcome. If Club de Cuervos gets a second season, I can see the show approaching future seasons like how Orange is the New Black has done in terms of developing its secondary characters while advancing a main plotline.

The humour was low-key but well-done – the show’s writing staff did not speak Spanish, and so they had to do things differently. As one of the writers puts it:

What we found was that it was not as challenging as we thought. We quickly learned that we couldn’t rely on clever wordplay, or turns of phrase, because those would be lost in translation. It forced us to dig deeper and write character-driven humor that resonated from a story perspective, more than the classical set-up/punchline construction. The result, we hope, connects with international audiences because it hits on universal truths.

— Alessia Costantini, writer and co-executive producer on “Club de Cuervos”

The result is humour that relies on more slapstick than wit, but I liked it – it kept the show breezy even at its most dramatic moments. Club de Cuervos is at its core a light comedy, but it combines its laughs with several footballing truths. To me, that’s a beautiful way to play the game.

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