Feature: Why African Football Is “beautiful”

Zambia players celebrate victory over Ivory Coast in CAN final

Africa often gets short shrift. Warfare as a direct consequence of the scrabble for its ample resources – which should allow its 54 nations to be self-sufficient – has been the catalyst for famine, disease and poverty.

Colonial and Postcolonial history has seen the continent’s rich culture used to create divides.

And a relatively young and growing population (over half the continent’s population is under 25) is in danger of stifling growth when it could be promoting it.

The struggle to maintain a basic standard of living looms ominously for the next generation of Africans; 34 African countries were ranked ”very low” on the UN’s 2011 Human Development Index.

But one outlet that is giving young Africans hope is Sport. It allows them to meet and exercise their passions through playing and supporting.

One individual who has seen the merits of football far beyond the realms of European stadia and customised number plates is award-winning independent film-maker Victor Buhler.

The director of ”Rikers High”, which was nominated for an Emmy and won best documentary in 2005 at the Tribeca Film Festival, returns to the art form with his new film, “The Beautiful Game”, the culmination of four years hard work.

The film was conceived as a story to capture the World Cup coming to Africa for the first time in 2010, but after a serious accident, the Singaporean born Londoner began to see football as more than just a game; is changing the lives of Africans on and off the pitch.

Following an exclusive screening at the University of Westminster Cinema – heralded as the birthplace of British cinema after the Lumière brothers decided to show their first ever screening of moving images there in 1896 – I met up with the socially conscious and charismatic director who is also a postgraduate student at the university. In the serenity of a Central London square, dressed in a crisp light blue shirt coupled with a suave pair of brown boots to match, he lit up the mild March afternoon with a rapid-fire discussion about film, football in Africa and his hopes for the continent’s future.

“The film is only partially about football, it’s really about our experiences collectively as a film-making group and what we really found inspiring”, he explained. “So in a sense the film is really about determination, ambition, survival and spirit.”

“The Beautiful Game” is a character-based feature documentary which interweaves seven compelling stories from six African countries: Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast.  Each character involved – young or old – has a tale that highlights how football is a tool for social change, and how imperative the game will be for the future of the continent.

This is especially evident in the case of promising midfielder Emmanuel from Ghana. “E-man” is fourteen when we begin the film and enrolled at the Right To Dream Academy, a professional sports and leadership academy that nurtures young and underprivileged talent in Ghana. Then, as the film progresses, we see him given an incredible chance to go on a scholarship to a prestigious school in Santa Barbara, California.

Buhler enthused: “Suddenly he pulls up at this school and he’s under a lot of pressure to survive. Everyone is relying on him to become the big brother of the family and he knows his family’s hopes are riding on him”

Suzanne, a fan from the Ivory Coast whose life has been marked by the iron grip of civil war, shows how supporting a football team can also change once forsaken circumstances for the better. The watershed moment that inspired her to create a women’s supporters group was when Chelsea striker and Ivory Coast Captain Didier Drogba made a plea on national TV before the World Cup in 2006. He and the rest of his team-mates implored the West African nation to stop fighting.

The film-maker noted how the supporters group Suzanne formed helped introduce women to football and resolve tensions.

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