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Directed by British-born Suridh Hassan, Soka Afrika focuses upon a dark side of football that is rarely covered by sports journalists, that of exploitation and trafficking of young footballers in the neo-colonial world by predominantly European agents. All too often, pundits and commentators discuss and present football and the many prejudices that still prevail within it as if no other world exists beyond them, and so Hassan's film - released by Masnomis two days after this year's Africa Cup of Nations begins in South Africa - is a timely corrective to a problem that is not only endemic, but has wider political and historical roots.
While one interviewee might claim here that it's "not about Europe versus Africa, or whites versus blacks, it's about the commercial exploitation of human beings", for instance, the ease with which unregistered agents can lure youngsters away from their economically impoverished backgrounds with the promise of lucrative contracts and overnight stardom on another continent has its roots in centuries-old soil: Europe's imperialist past, the prolonged fallout of which is a concentrated wealth and institutional infrastructure that exploits foreign resources for its own self-expanding growth.
This social reality cannot be ignored. In Hassan's film, a Cameroon-based agent suggests that the exploited youngsters' parents are often complicit in their sons' ventures and subsequent abandonment abroad. Such pressures can - and, crucially, must - be contextualised by the pursuit of wealth that a parasitic transglobal capitalism demands, however. To the parents who are as taken in by these unseen, leech-like agents as much as their sons, a footballing contract in a top-flight European football team poses a way out of the unfortunate circumstances that their geographical location causes them to inherit. As Jean-Claude Mbvoumin notes in Hassan's film, "agents are a real thorn in the side for football. They profit from the dreams of families."
Mbvoumin, himself a former Cameroonian footballer, is founder and president of Foot Solidaire, an education and outreach programme that seeks to raise awareness of institutional corruption and structural weaknesses within African football, and to help those many youngsters ruthlessly left abandoned in alien European cities to return home. One such youngster was Ndomo Sabo, who recalls in Soka Afrika how a French agent approached him when he was 18 years old and living with his parents in Cameroonian capital Yaoundé; eliciting up-front payments from Sabo's parents, the agent essentially had Sabo illegally trafficked to Paris, where the young Cameroonian was subsequently abandoned and left homeless. Braving the humiliation of a phone call home, he was reminded by his parents that they had gambled everything on his success.
Sabo's story is juxtaposed with that of South African Kermit Erasmus, who at the beginning of Soka Afrika narrates his own journey while at Dutch side Feyenoord, on loan to Excelsior. Following Erasmus' contribution to South Africa's run to the quarter finals of the under-20s World Cup in Egypt in 2009, Hassan's film shows the young player - nineteen during the film's production - is a talented prospect whose career path is nevertheless in the hands of indifferent management. A cut-throat business as well as the world's most popular sport, football is shown here in all its social vibrancy - which makes the darker aspects all the more disturbing.
Late in the film, FIFA President and hot air specialist Sepp Blatter gives a talk to a group of young footballers, and his empty speechifying rings hollow indeed: in the months preceding the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Blatter's governing body abandoned Foot Solidaire's educational campaign a year and a half after promising Mbouvim its full support. With its back forever turned to endemic problems such as racism, FIFA is complicit in the ongoing institutionalisation of human trafficking and is itself essentially corrupt. Though he refrains from making such comments in his own film, Hassan captures one increasingly pertinent aspect of football with handsome imagery and a buoyant soundtrack, and Soka Afrika is a documentary worth seeing by anyone interested in the commercialisation, privatisation and capitalisation of the sporting world.