Posted by: Ben Hopkins | 16/08/2009

Africa United

Director: Olaf Johannesson
Year: 2005

In any sports documentary you want to see a dedicated team of believers battling the odds to triumph in the face of adversity. And adversity is exactly what football manager Zico (no, not that one) found when he entered his team Afrika into the deild karla (Iceland’s third tier of football).

Manager Zico with mentor Alan Curbishley

Manager Zico with mentor Alan Curbishley

Zico came to Iceland from Morocco in search of his fortune but became depressed following his subsequent bankruptcy. In an attempt to lift this spirits, he formed Afrika, a multi-national squad of players based around a core of African players alongside others from countries including Serbia, Portugal and Columbia.

Celebrating a rare win

Celebrating a rare win

Africa United charts the team’s first foray into the (relative) upper echelons of Icelandic football. Zico and his team have just one real problem; they’re not very good. Each match seems to be a carnival of ill-discipline and sloppy defending, often exacerbated by the concession of a series of weak penalties (generally courtesy of the player-manager’s last-ditch attempts to stop conceding another goal). The situation isn’t helped by a constant clash of egos between the team’s flair players, Serbian Zlatko and Nigerian law-student Paul. But as the season goes on, can Afrika achieve a modicum of respectability?

Although this true story feels slightly embellished (and it’s no secret as the Poppoli Pictures website states), Afrika’s journey is a pacy, entertaining ride of hope amidst haplessness. Much of this is due to the innate charm of the film’s subjects – when they’re not haranguing referees or bickering about who’s to blame for the latest display, they’re all eminently likeable.

The succession of defeats is broken up with a few road trips abroad. We follow Zico back home to Morocco and on a pilgrimage to London to seek the advice of then Charlton manager Alan Curbishley. There’s also footage of Zlatko’s wedding home in Serbia. They’re fun diversions but you can’t help but feel that a deeper look into the experiences of the players’ new lives in Iceland would’ve providing this meagre story with far greater depth.

Although there’s not much to Africa United – the team loses, argues, loses again and argues again before a steady improvement – a surfeit of humour and an unusual subject makes for an engaging view for football fans. But most heartening is that
Zico and Afrika have maintained their challenge
to the present day, with
many of the film’s stars
carrying on the fight.

Africa United is available to buy online from Nammi.

“You could have, say, Ronaldo in the team. But if that Ronaldo is destroying everyone else, we don’t need him.”

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