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Jul 3, 2014

Coach Zoran and His African Tigers

Zoran Djordjevic took on a daunting challenge when he agreed to help create a South Sudan national football team.

Rating:

South Sudan finally celebrated its independence from the north in July 2011 following almost half a century of the longest civil war in African history that had claimed nearly 2.5 million lives. A new nation had been born, one of hope and reconciliation, and one which sought to put its name on the world map by setting up a national football team.

Directed by Sam Benstead, "Coach Zoran and His African Tigers" follows the remarkable journey of eccentric Serbian coach Zoran Djordjevic as he scours the nation for talent and aspires to build a squad of players whose lives have been scarred by death, illness and poverty. Zoran arrives with a good track record in international management, having coached Yemen, Bangladesh and the Philippines, but nothing can prepare him for creating a team from scratch in a country considered perhaps the most undeveloped in the world.

Burdened by the vice-president's ambitions to win the African Nations Cup and qualify for the 2014 World Cup -- despite the fact that African qualification was already well underway -- Zoran dedicates all of his money and effort to the team, even offering his passport to a street-side metal welder as a deposit for some goalposts. Though he is promised a car by the government, it never materialises and Zoran is forced to hitch lifts and use public buses as he embarks on his mission throughout the country.

"As a coach you must be prepared to go beyond the limit. All my money I give. I don't care, I will give even blood for victory." - Zoran Djordjevic.

But Zoran is a man of admirable determination and mental spirit; he refuses to surrender to adversity and in one of the film's more light-hearted scenes, he purchases a lamb as the nation's lucky mascot, naming it Champion -- a nickname which he also likes to attribute to himself. There is an essence of likeable arrogance with Zoran, similar to that of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jose Mourinho, and he earns the trust and support of the nation with his desire to succeed despite his often brusque behaviour.

Even when South Sudan becomes embroiled in an economy-crippling oil conflict with the north, which freezes finances to the national team and leads to questionable bureaucracy, Zoran battles on. No obstacle is too great for Zoran and he again shows his fighting spirit by overcoming a life-threatening bout of malaria. "Nobody can stop Zoran," he quips.

"Coach Zoran and His African Tigers" is a poignant reminder that sport and politics can mix and we see members of rival tribes playing alongside each other on the field, their faces flooded with tears and their arms united as they chant the words of the new national anthem for the first time, with one national team player commenting: "Death became a way of life in Sudan. We are not politicians, we are just footballers, but our sport can bring peace to a town full of war."

Sadly, crisis never appears to be too far away from South Sudan and with the country's economic future and social wellbeing uncertain, football attempts to transcend political and ethical barriers, to bring a sense of pride and identity to the South Sudanese people. Who ever thought that 11 men kicking around a football could mean so much?