More than a two-dimensional African celebrity

A new documentary about Liverpool FC striker, Sadio Mane, is watchable, but suffers from the fallacy that sports and politics don’t mix.

Still from Made in Senegal.

The documentary film, Sadio Mané—Made in Senegal, is a classic “rags-to-riches” film. Funded mainly by New Balance, the technical sponsor of Liverpool Football Club, it tells the story of the West African footballer who rises from a humble upbringing in rural Senegal to become a global superstar with Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League-winning side.

Mané is both the subject and narrator of the film, which uses a mix of on-camera interviews with family, friends, and coaches, among others, as well as graphic novel-like illustrations and selected highlights to help tell his story. The film opens with the striker speaking in French from the comfort of his living room. Viewers are immediately confronted with familiar sportspeak: Mané looks straight into the camera and tells us he was “born to be a footballer.” His dream was always to make it as a pro, to sacrifice and succeed.

Despite the clichés, the film’s structure is interestingly non-linear. It begins in Bambali, Casamance, a politically tense area of Senegal located south of The Gambia. Mané grew up around the corner from the dusty village pitch. He fell in love with the game and came to understand it as the only way to avoid spending his life farming for his family.

In an unexpected temporal and spatial pivot, Mané welcomes the cameras into his spectacularly luxurious summer residence in Spain. He swims in the pool, looks out at the sea, and generally projects a feel of wealth, comfort, and success. We also meet Bjorn Bezemer, his very white European agent, who shows his dutiful reverence by cooking Mané a tasty breakfast.

Spain is also where Liverpool holds its pre-season camp, and the film briefly takes us there before leaping quickly to the buildup of the return leg of the famous Champions League semifinal against Barcelona. In a legendary comeback, the Reds win 4-0 to overturn a three-goal deficit and qualify for the final. An unsubtle nod to Liverpool technical sponsor suddenly interrupts the film’s rhythm as Mané does a glam photo shoot for New Balance.

Then, the film makes yet another unexpected move back in time. We are transported to 2008 in Mané’s home village, where we learn about his childhood nickname: Ballonbowa (ball wizard). This is where some of the most revealing storytelling takes place. We learn about the devastating impact the death of his father had on Mané at the age of seven. We see that his family is devoutly Muslim, with a long tradition of imams in the male line; a family that values education above all else, so the “ball wizard” does not have support for his dream of becoming a professional footballer. He decides to leave without his parents’ permission and embarks on an arduous journey through The Gambia en route to Dakar. His family is furious and eventually retrieves him, forcing Mané to return to school. Once he completes his schooling, however, he is allowed to return to Dakar where he enters the Generation Foot Academy, directed by Mady Touré.

Not unexpectedly, Mané’s skill, discipline, hard work, and bonhomie impresses coaches and, most importantly, a scout from Metz FC in France (which funds the Academy). He gets his big break and signs a contract with Metz. Culture shock and sports hernia surgery prematurely end his season. The next season, however, he returns stronger than ever. He plays for Senegal in the 2012 London Olympics, a moment of well-earned patriotic pride. The story moves quickly here: in 2012-13 he’s off to RB Salzburg in Austria and then joins Southampton in the English Premier League in 2014-15. After he scores a brace against Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp brings him to Anfield for the 2016-17 season. At Liverpool, Mané strikes gold. The film now returns to the 2019 Champions League final against Spurs, an opportunity to show Mané at his successful best.

In a nice touch, the film does not end on a conventional celebratory high. Rather, it follows Mané back to Senegal, where he prepares for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. There are beautiful scenes of him with his extended family in Dakar, as well as his “prodigal son” return to Bambali, where he built a school and a hospital—a fine expression of his civic mindedness and social responsibility. That this closing segment unfolds in a Senegalese context encourages the audience to understand Mané as more than a two-dimensional African celebrity. It highlights the importance of family and Islam to who he is as a human being. Still, there is a stereotypical message embedded in the film’s conclusion, which shows Senegal’s 1-0 defeat to Algeria in the final of the African Cup of Nations: losing is part of sport, but superstars like Mané turn those lessons into motivation to pursue victory and win, again and again.

The absence of politics is one of the film’s shortcomings. For example, there is one passing mention to “rebels” in Casamance toward the end, without even a basic description of the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) that emerged in the early 1980s, and its struggle against the Senegalese government and military. (Perhaps this helps to explain why Mané’s Jola background is left largely unexamined.) A different kind of politics overlooked in the film has to do with power relations within football itself. How did Mané navigate the Generation Foot Academy and, later, the shark-infested waters of professional football in France, Austria, and England? To what extent was Mané’s apolitical character the result of a strategic choice on his part? The filmmakers’ detachment from these tensions tends to reinforce the fallacy that sports and politics do not intersect. Another shortcoming of the film is the superficial coverage of Sadio Mané’s personal life. Viewers learn very little about his off-the-pitch experiences, interests, and relationships.

As ESPN’s series, The Last Dance, exploring Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls recently showed, the commercial sports film genre has clear limitations. Sadio Mané, Made in Senegal is no different. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable film that should appeal to a broad audience beyond obsessive football fans and devoted Africa scholars.

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