The closest thing to real life

The documentary film. “Zoran and his African Tigers,” shows how harsh and unforgiving international football can be.

A still from the film.

Not all countries are treated equally by FIFA, the body that organizes global football. Palestine and Taiwan are, but not so lucky are Kosovo (who can only play friendlies), the Sahrawi Republic (Morocco objects) or Northern Cyprus. Gibraltar is now a member of UEFA, despite Spain’s objection (they will never be put in the same qualifying group). In contrast, the application of Africa’s newest independent state, South Sudan, was relatively run of the mill. The country became independent in 2011 (after a 22-year civil war) and, soon after, formed a national football association. But they had no team and no coach. In 2012 Serbian Zoran Đorđević was appointed as national team manager. His first task was to set about building a team. Đorđević succeeded in getting the team to play in a couple of friendlies and a regional tournament. One year later, however, he left. Đorđević’s fateful tenure in South Sudan would normally pass unremarked upon, except that it is now the subject of director Sam Benstead’s excellent new documentary film “Coach Zoran and his African Tigers.”

Đorđević came recommended to South Sudan with excellent credentials: he had a record of coaching small footballing nations to success. An Indian club side he coached won their first domestic championship and in 2010 he led Bangladesh’s national team to their first-ever gold medal at the South Asian Games. Đorđević, who is a brash, brusque figure soon makes bold promises to his Sudanese hosts: among them that he’d qualify South Sudan for the African Nations Cup and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil (despite the fact that this would not be possible as African qualification was already underway when South Sudan’s national association was formed).

Benstead trails Đorđević taking minibuses, hitching rides in pickup trucks across the country or walking to makeshift pitches to spot the country’s most talented footballers (the national association and the country’s vice president, Riek Machar, promised him a car, but it never materializes). He pays with his own money for the team’s transport, training ground, goal posts, and even comes up with a team nickname: the “Tigers” (despite the fact there are no tigers in Africa). Later on he purchases a team mascot: a lamb.

Đorđević is definitely the star of the film and some viewers may have a hard time taking a liking to him. He comes across as a mix of Paolo di Canio and the “hairdryer”-version of Alex Ferguson. For example, he says the worst things about his Sudanese hosts; he does so in Serbian, so they don’t know what he is saying. He also treats the players like children.

But Đorđević is more than that and Benstead is talented enough to show these contradictions. Despite his hard exterior, Đorđević really cares about South Sudanese football and the players in his charge. So we see Đorđević spending much of his time battling the local FA chairman over payment (for himself), equipment (for the team) and the use of training facilities.

Apart from Đorđević, the film’s other two stars are Thomas Jacob, a stocky midfielder built like Clarence Seedorf who is at the heart of the team and who left the rest of his family in the north when independence came, and Hassan Ismail, a tall striker, who dreams of a career in Europe. (Hassan eventually gets a trial in Canada.) These two serve as good foils to Đorđević. Jacob, for example, lives with other players in a dormitory when he is not playing, while Hassan weighs feeding his new baby or following his sporting dreams.

But “Zoran and the African Tigers” is also about South Sudan’s new freedom. Zoran’s arrival—because of his track record with smaller nations—reflects the optimism South Sudanese feel about their own country. But he, and his team, soon get frustrated as he comes up against the new, mostly ineffective, bureaucracy, and the doublespeak of local politicians. The team’s prospects are also disrupted by geopolitics—in 2012, South Sudan stopped oil exports to the north, which crippled the economy.

Like the team, the new nation is incomplete and freedom proves frustrating. As Hassan exasperatedly sums up halfway through the film: the end of the independence war only amplified other problems and legacies among South Sudanese that had been postponed until then. Eventually, it all gets pretty depressing.

International football can be harsh and unforgiving. It doesn’t wait for new nations to catch up or provide them with Hollywood endings. The ethnologist Christian Bromberger once suggested football is the closest thing to real life.

South Sudan first has to show they can play against other teams in the crowded CECAFA (the Council for East and Central African Football Associations) region. This is where, for example, Ethiopia play their football. That means that South Sudan has to get ready—in a very short time—to play in the 2012 CECAFA championship in neighboring Uganda and that’s when things come to a head for the team. The result is that the problem with the football team, though certainly not with the same stakes, portends the crisis inside South Sudan which last month escalated into a full-scale civil war.

Benstead’s film has been doing the rounds of film festivals, but we hope it gets a wider audience, whether on satellite (how most Sudanese will probably see it eventually) and public television on the continent.

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