Al Jazeera has announced they will screen a five-part documentary on the stories of five football heroes whose social conscience led them to challenge unjust regimes, join opposition movements and lead the fight for democracy and human rights.
Presented and narrated by the former Manchester United star Eric Cantona, “Football rebels” tells the story of five footballers who used their fame and influence to shape the political and social fabric of their country.
The first episode explores how the former Chelsea and Ivory Coast forward Didier Drogba had helped the Ivory Coast team qualify for the 2006 world cup, and then challenged President Gbagbo to end the civil war in his country.
Episode two looks at how in 1958 AS Saint Etienne striker Rachid Mekhloufi stealthily left France to join the FLN football team and play for Algerian Independence.
The third episode shows how in the midst of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the former Yugoslav star Predrag Pasic started a multi-ethnic football school in the besieged city of Sarajevo
The fourth episode follows the journey of Chilean player Carlos Caszely and how in 1973 his support for murdered president Salvador Allende led to his persecution by General Pinochet’s regime.
The final episode looks back at the Brazilian dictatorship of the early 1980s and how Sócrates the midfield maestro and Brazilian captain turned every Corinthians’ match into a political meeting for democracy.
Commenting on “Football Rebels” Eric Cantona says: “Football is more than the opium of the people. It's about good intentions, noble hearts... When your country's at war, your friends are killing each other and children are given rifles rather than footballs, so what if the whole world admires you!”
The first episode of Football Rebels will be shown on Monday 11th March at 22:30 GMT on Al Jazeera, but the programmes will be available online a day after viewing here.
If you need any further persuasion, here’s what Luke Ginnell had to say about Football Rebels for IBWM when he saw it (as Les Rebelles du Foot) at Belgrade's Dvorana Kulturnog Centra in November last year:
Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of watching this French-produced docu-film in the company of one of its most prominent stars, former Yugoslav international footballer Predrag Pašić.
Hélas, I don't wish to deceive you, dear reader; the great man and I are not acquainted, much to my chagrin. In reality, Predrag and I merely happened to be two unconnected members of a large audience present during a screening of the film at Belgrade's Dvorana Kulturnog Centra - he as a distinguished invited guest, I as a fascinated onlooker eager to lap up the fascinating on-screen imagery and history I felt sure Eric Cantona, Gilles Perez, and Gilles Rof would provide. Unfortunately, if I am completely honest, my entire interaction with Mr Pašić last night consisted of little more, in this case, than the surreptitious casting of longing glances in his direction over the course of the 90-minute film.
On the other hand, Predrag's very presence in the auditorium at DKC was a delightful bonus on which I had not counted; this alone was enough to captivate me for the evening, and I determined before the film even began that the night would be a success no matter the quality of the fare on offer.
So much for critical objectivity, I hear you cry. Well, that's just the way it is.
As for the film itself, it sells itself as a film-manifeste that "reaffirms" sporting values, doing so through the presentation of five heroic footballers and their stories. Dividing the film into fifths, each story deals with a particular player - Didier Drogba, Carlos Caszely, Rachid Mekhloufi, Predrag Pašić, and Sócrates - and how that individual "said no," or "resisted." The film details the actions of these individuals and how these actions affected their respective societies, environments, and those around them. Aiming to tell tales of struggle against adversity, the five segments serve as an attempt to illustrate how the men featured fought for their families, futures, independence, nations, and, indeed, their survival.
Beginning with Didier Drogba's quest for peace in the Ivory Coast, the film takes us to Chile with Carlos Caszely, Algeria and Tunis with Rachid Mekhloufi, Sarajevo with Predrag Pašic, and, finally, to Brazil, to study the events surrounding Sócrates and Corinthians Democracy. The stories are not directly connected in terms of chronology or causal relationship. Instead, they each contribute to the overriding themes of the film; resistance-through-football, the power of football to wield significant influence on popular opinion and culture, its propaganda value, and its power to change.
The one constant in the film is the presence of its hyperbolic, madcap narrator, Eric Cantona, who plays something of a playmaker role, stringing the various segments together with a succession of interludes, histrionic vignettes, and numerous bearded close-ups.
Ok, now that you know what it's all about, let's address the most important issues surrounding the film; is it any good? Does it deliver on its promises? Is this a mere vanity project, or a worthwhile didactic pursuit? And, is Monsieur Cantona not-so-subtly angling for a future role as Fidel Castro in any potential biopic of the Cuban leader?
To start off, there are some undeniables in relation to the film. Firstly, it is beautifully shot, containing some wonderful, colourful, footage from the various locations visited by the camera crew during the course of the film. Particularly spectacular are the environmental and urban shots from Abidjan, Tunis, and Sao Paulo.
For the football-obsessive, the film provides some marvellous and rare images of matches, moments, players, and stadiums. Of special interest to the anoraks amongst us will be the scenes from the Algerian rebel-games of the 1950s, as well as the grainy-yet-vivid pictures of the outstanding 1980s Corinthians team of Sócrates and co. As a result of the inclusion of this old footage and its rich, distinct nature, the appetites of footballing-aesthetes will no doubt be satisfied. For those not so enamoured with the game, there is, perhaps, just enough imagery of scenes outside football's purview to compensate. In this regard, I point to the archive footage of post-rebellion Algeria, the peek inside the makeshift detention centre/torture chamber that was the Estadio Nacional de Chile, and the saddening film from within Sarajevo and Predrag Pašić's Bubamara football-school.
The second undeniable that applies to the film is its message: football is important. It has power. Yet, it is malleable. The power it possesses can be used for bad or good, for negative or positive, for propaganda or for information. The game is a tool - unwitting, perhaps - whose usage can be adjusted and moulded to suit the needs of those who attempt to do so. We see enough examples of situations where this has been put into action for nefarious purposes; this film seeks to show the other side of the coin, the moments and situations in which the game has excelled beyond its confines, influencing society and opinion for positive, forward-thinking reasons.
Much negativity surrounds the sport, particularly amongst those outside the "circle," those who look in at a world incomprehensible to them and see nothing more than a beast; violent, corrupt, hate-fuelled. This film serves, in my eyes at least, as a message to them: Think Again! Think Again, please!
See the joy football brings. See what it can accomplish. See that it is capable of achieving things a decade of diplomacy, politicking, hatred, and violence cannot. Failure to appreciate this is a failure to understand. Look past the overpaid, abuse-spouting, jumped-up thugs that appear in tabloid headlines, supposedly representing the nature of football. Are men such as this to be considered the norm within the footballing world? I say not. Ignore them. Focus instead on men such as Sócrates and Predrag Pašić.
Judge not the game by the leeches that cling to it - the racists, the hooligans, the politicians who twist the sport for their aims. They exist, that is without doubt. But these people are not truly part of it. No, they are but mere invaders, raping the crops sown by hundreds of years of football's development.
They don't define us, they merely defame us.
This film, flawed as it is, preaches such a message. One of inspiration rather than desperation.
And yes, alas, it is flawed.
Despite the positive nature of the film, its excellent photography, and its relatively high production values, it lacks something. There is, perhaps, a dearth of content. Much of Les Rebelles' fine sentiment is not backed up with substance. Often, the viewer receives little more than an overview of each story. Clearly, there is more to tell, and Les Rebelles, for the most part, does not do so. Maybe, this is a consequence of the structure of the film; five segments within a ninety-minute feature. Possibly, the film ought to have been a television series, focusing on the individuals in hour-long episodes rather than the stunted, insufficiently-detailed blocks with which we are presented.
Further to this point, another issue relates to the role of Monsieur Eric Cantona. Admittedly, I loved every moment he was on screen. The man, whichever way you view him, has a presence and charisma that few possess. His hysterical, outrageously over-the-top narration reflects him as a player; colourful, flamboyant, dramatic, theatrical, and not entirely devoid of arrogance. However, I can't help but feel that Eric's style of presentation will either make or break the film for those who view it. The mode of engagement he employs is, as indicated, flair-filled, and he dominates the screen like some kind of Gallic, collar-raising Brian Blessed. Yet, he really does overdo it. As someone who is familiar with Cantona, I recognise the deliberate, irony-tinted brand of bombast that is his trademark. But will that be the case with all of the film's audience? I sincerely doubt it. He takes himself seriously, for sure, but not as seriously as one might imagine upon viewing Les Rebelles. Indeed, his performance is so utterly melodramatic, hammy, and egocentric that even I begin to lose touch with my awareness of his ability to self-mock and self-efface, as evidence in Ken Loach's Looking for Eric. To some, the film might appear as something of a vanity project on the part of Cantona - who, by the way, threw the weight of his Canto Bros production company behind the film.
Is the film, thus, simply a vehicle to further the ex-United man's career and to boost his status as a cult icon? In my opinion, the answer to this is a simple "no." This is not a vanity project. It is, however, a project that does contain a liberal amount of vanity, both on the part of its presenter and its writer-director-producers.
Les Rebelles could have been so much more. The potential was there. The footage was there. The charismatic stars were there. It was beautiful, showy, and brimming with Gallic potential - it just didn't quite deliver all it promised. To use an old footballing cliché, it flattered to deceive. In other words, it was David Ginola.
Les Rebelles has value - great value, in fact. But this value is likely to be restricted to those already in love with the beautiful game, rather than those to whom it means little. Upon viewing, some converts will be made on the back of the film. Some haters will hate the game less than before. Those who are entirely disinterested in football might gain a modicum of respect. Others who look down on us as nothing more than the grateful recipients of "the opiate of the masses" might think twice.
But, it should have done more. It should have done more.
Yet still, I loved every second.
If you adore football as I do, go and see this film.