Win! reveals the inside story of MLS football team New York City FC

Director Justin Webster tells us his film is as much about the business of football as the team’s efforts on the pitch.

The New York City FC players get ready to play their first-ever game, a preseason friendly in Charleston. Courtesy Win!
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The launch of a new top-flight football club in one of the biggest cities in the world is a major event, even in a country that, despite the mass appeal of professional sports, has largely remained unimpressed by the beautiful game.

For those of us in the UAE, the launch of New York City FC was also a notable event, given that the team is part of the City Football Group family of clubs, which also includes English Premier League side Manchester City and Australian A-League team Melbourne City.

CFG is a holding company under parent company Abu Dhabi United Group, which is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed.

New York City, which is co-owned by baseball club the New York Yankees, began competing in the Eastern Conference of Major League Soccer last year, and a documentary-film crew was given extensive behind-the-scenes access – aspects normally shrouded in secrecy, including discussions about player signings – to record its creation and first season.

The film, Win!, had its world premiere at the Big Apple's Tribeca film festival, which ended yesterday.

British director Justin Webster, who also made the 2005 football documentary Barça! The Inside Story, has taken full advantage of his unprecedented access to make a film that is as much about the business of modern football as it is about what happens on the pitch.

“Well, this kind of film, the interesting thing is that it changes the angles,” says Webster.

“A lot of the time you see football from the outside – and when you see it from the inside, it changes. It’s not a headline change but you can see how difficult it is, and how really demanding it is. Just putting a team together, it’s like a 1000-piece puzzle.”

Win! begins with the signing of New York City's first player, its captain, Spanish World Cup-winning striker David Villa, and Frank Lampard, the former England international player and English side Chelsea's all-time top goal scorer, who was immediately loaned to Manchester City to keep him match fit while New York City built the rest of their squad.

Behind the scenes, the sporting director Claudio Reyna, the former Manchester City and United States international player, and manager Jason Kreis, provide the insights.

Meanwhile, football in the US reached unprecedented heights, thanks to the national team’s impressive run at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, in which they narrowly lost out to Belgium in the round of 16, losing 2-1 after extra time.

It is fascinating to watch the normally hidden discussions about player purchases. Unlike in Europe, all the salaries are made public and there is a salary cap, which sets the maximum budget for the squad at US$3 million (Dh11m) a year. However, each team is allowed to sign three players who don’t count towards that cap.

In the case of New York City, those players were Villa and Lampard, who earn $6m a year, and the Italian former AC Milan and Juventus player Andrea Pirlo, who agreed a $2m deal.

While some would argue that players’ salaries are out of control in Europe, Webster believes the low salary cap is preventing football becoming a massive sport in the US.

“I think it comes across in the film, soccer is controlled so that it does not turn into another American football, baseball or basketball,” he says.

One of the toughest jobs Webster faced making the documentary was gaining the trust of the players.

“It takes time and once you get their trust, the battle is never over,” he says. “One of the key things is that you film a lot – it’s almost an endurance test. After a while the players realise that you are serious about it, and also when stuff is happening it’s not coming out the next day.”

Another complication was that the filmmakers were unable to be present continuously during the 18 months covered by the film.

“We had to spread out the filming: four-and-a-half months over a-year-and-half,” says Webster. “And every time we came back, we had to... not start again exactly, but they have to accept you back.”

As well as the players and back-room team in New York, Webster also met the owners from Abu Dhabi.

“I met the group chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, and Simon Pearce, who is a board member who looks after their image and things,” he says. “I think without their agreement, the documentary would never have happened.

“We met Khaldoon and he was – actually, to tell you the truth, right at the beginning they were very sensitive about filming him. People at the club saying you mustn’t film the chairman – but in fact when we were filming with Jason, he walked into the shot and carried on. He obviously didn’t mind – he bought into the film.”

Webster does not shy away from the big stories surrounding the birth of the club.

One of the most intriguing sections of the film provides an inside view of the controversy that was caused when Manchester City decided to hold onto Lampard until the end of the English Premier League season last year, which delayed his New York City debut and meant he missed the start of the club’s inaugural MLS season.

A release date for Win! is yet to be announced