Film Africa (1): ‘The Beautiful Game’

This documentary film actually turns into a compelling portrait of football on the African continent once you get past the empty platitudes by celebrities at the start, saying little substantive about African football—including former professional footballers (like Anthony Baffoe, Roger Milla and Jay Jay Okocha) and Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and FW de Klerk (the last Apartheid President of South Africa goes on about a childhood love for football).

At times the film feels crowded with too many plot-lines, but director Victor Buhler picked three compelling characters to drive the narrative: Sulley Muntari, a key member of Ghana’s national team (he currently plays for AC Milan in Italy); Emmanuel Boateng, a teenage soccer prodigy also from Ghana, who scores a football scholarship to an exclusive prep school in California; and a Cameroonian footballer abandoned by an unscrupulous agent in Lagos, Nigeria. The supporting cast includes the Dutch coach Clemens Westerhof, who has coached teams in Algeria, Nigeria (to an African Nations Cup championship and World Cup qualification), Zimbabwe and South Africa. Westerhof now lives in Nigeria where he runs a state-supported soccer academy for young men. His insights to his young charges are priceless. In-between there are vignettes about the female fan club of Cote d’Ivoire’s national team (football fan culture in that country deserves a film of its own) and disabled football players and coaches in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, among others. Except for the story of the Cameroonian footballer stuck in Lagos (the scene where he reassures his mother back in Cameroon that success will eventually come, is quite heartbreaking), the film is mostly upbeat. ‘The Beautiful Game’ also has a great soundtrack. ‘The Beautiful Game’ is a contemporary of a slew of other football documentaries produced around the time of the 2010 World Cup, the first time the continent hosted the tournament.

* Africa is a Country is a media partner of Film Africa, the UK’s largest annual festival of African cinema and culture (starting in November 2012 for 10 days showing 70 African films) in London. “The Beautiful Game” screens on November 7 at the Hackney Picturehouse.

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