wed 28/09/2016

Storyville: Coach Zoran and His African Tigers, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews

Storyville: Coach Zoran and His African Tigers, BBC Four

Portrait of South Sudanese football team is a little too comfortable with poking fun

Zoran Djordjević and his African Tigers

Hassan Ismail Konyi is not the first young man to see football as a meal ticket. The twist is that he has rather more dependents riding on his dream that most. Hassan has 26 sisters and 35 brothers. He comes from South Sudan, the youngest country on earth and one of the more benighted. But a young man can dream, and his dreams are given fuel by his national coach.

“After two years in my control,” says Zoran Djordjević, “he will be in Liverpool Barcelona Manchester United”.  Zoran, who doesn’t do modesty or commas, is the short fat bald Serb who has spent the past 30 years on football’s global dirt track in outposts such as Iran and Bangladesh. If you’re interested in these things, his Wikipedia page is a work of art, and possibly fiction. But somehow Zoran has landed a gig coaching the national team of South Sudan, and he is nothing if not passionate, in both pidgin English and – at a guess – equally pidgin Arabic. You wouldn’t call his grasp of sports psychology Wengerian. “Why are you such a pussy in the pitch?” he asked one player.

Among Zoran's more buffoonish stunts is to acquire a sheep as a team mascot

Sam Benstead’s film for Storyville follows Djordjević as he takes up the challenge of picking a national squad and coaching them to their first international and, beyond that, their first tournament in neighbouring Uganda. His first job is to get a car out of the South Sudan FA so that he can go scouting. And a map. But there are no maps in South Sudan, he’s told. This is not Europe. There don’t even seem to be many goalposts or even balls. But Zoran is used to throwing his weight around and, even as the entire economy shuts down, delusionally bangs on doors, shouts at officials and generally calls people a “motherfucking cunt”.

Where Zoran is a figure of fun – among his more buffoonish stunts is to acquire a sheep as a team mascot (pictured right) – the film treats the young South Sudanese footballers with rather more dignity. Thomas says that he lost 210 relatives in the civil war, and is sundered from his wife and family who have remained in North Sudan. When Hassan goes off to Toronto for a fortnight’s trial to become a professional he compares it to the only thing he knows. “ It's like a war. No one wants to be defeated.” The most poignant moment of cultural misunderstanding sees Zoran playfully slapping a young player’s cheek, to be met by a visceral reaction of baffled terror.

Benstead’s film boasts remarkable access. He even penetrates the clinic where Zoran at one point lies at death’s door suffering from malaria (which does claim one player in the national squad). Quite what he wants to do with it is less clear. He might easily have delivered a more routine film about sporting redemption in a tragic wasteland, but the presence of the weeping, shouting, emotionally incontinent Zoran drags it towards rambunctious docusoap. The film’s hectic tonal shifts between tragedy to farce are as topsy-turvy as any end-to-end football match. And Jack C Arnold’s jaunty oom-pa soundtrack does nothing to dampen a nagging impression that Benstead’s study of cultural misunderstanding sniggers at African chaos as much as European hauteur.

The film’s hectic tonal shifts between tragedy to farce are as topsy-turvy as any end-to-end football match



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