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Feb 21, 2012

A former life through a lens

In his playing days, Vikash Dhorasoo was never one to follow the crowd. As comfortable reading Jonathan Coe or listening to Belle & Sebastian as he was dribbling through midfield for Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain and France, his venture into cinema was hardly likely to produce Escape To Victory 2. And it didn't.

Made in collaboration with his friend, director Fred Poulet, Substitute chronicles Dhorasoo's role as a barely-used squad member in France's run to the 2006 World Cup final. Recorded in analogue on a hand-held Super-8, the film's constant soundtrack is the whirr of the camera, accentuating the extraordinary intimacy that Substitute creates. In an era that presents every nuance and contour of the football landscape in airbrushed, HD glory, Substitute is a fascinating and unpolished peek backstage.

As the film develops, we see him sink further and further into a black mood, alone in his room on the periphery of the frenzy of excitement, feeling betrayed at being overlooked by coach Raymond Domenech, the man who gave him his first call-up for France Under-21s in 1994.

Dhorasoo and Poulet are in London to host a screening of their curious vignette. Five years on from its original release, Dhorasoo regards it with a certain detachment. "It feels like a work of fiction now," he says. "Fred put it together, made the montage, and put the sound on."

Although the pair met for the first time shortly before they embarked on making Substitute they are now good friends, with the air of co-conspirators, constantly finishing off each other's sentences. The film itself was clearly a bonding experience. "Yours is the only friendly text message I've had today," Dhorasoo tells the camera at one point, going on to say much of his family are too disappointed for him to know what to say.

The wounded and lonely Dhorasoo of the film might seem hard to comprehend, given that this is a man who sat through perhaps the greatest-ever Champions League final, in Istanbul in 2005, as an unused substitute for AC Milan. "It wasn't about being a substitute or not," he insists. "It was about the history I had with him. When I went to Milan, I knew I'd be a substitute. It's a role that I chose. But I was the most used player under Domenech in the two years before the World Cup."

Time has softened Dhorasoo's attitude towards the much-lampooned coach, and he describes as "extraordinary" his achievement of qualifying France for three successive major tournaments. "I was wrong," he admits. "He had the right to not play me; he was doing his job. We had a filial relationship but at the end of it, he's not my father. You need time to understand that."

Dhorasoo believes his former coach's conduct is symptomatic of how football works; a regimented lifestyle that assumes untaught maturity. "That's the paradox with footballers," he says. "Guys like (Hatem) Ben Arfa, they're expected to behave in an exemplary fashion from when they're kids. He was put in front of the public at 14 years old (on the Canal+ documentary À La Clairefontaine). You're expected to be an adult, but you're treated like a kid. It's bizarre."

Accordingly, Dhorasoo has sympathy for the squad from the disastrous 2010 World Cup. "If (in 2006) we'd have gone out after the third (group) match," he ponders, "we'd have been seen as a disgrace, a bunch of guys who let their country down, but instead (Patrick) Vieira woke us up, scored (against Togo), and we qualified. Sure, they went out earlier in 2010. But they're not worse Frenchmen than us because they lost in the group and we got to the final."

The 'Bus Of Shame' incident in Knysna, South Africa, to protest against Nicolas Anelka's expulsion from the squad, changed the French public's view of its national team forever. Dhorasoo's erstwhile Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain teammate Peguy Luyindula recently told So Foot that "going on strike is a fundamental right of the French constitution. Since Knysna, footballers don't have that right anymore."

Despite the nation's expression of disgust, Knysna showed an uncommon step away from a habitually self-interested world, says Dhorasoo. "They defended someone together," he claims, "which is a very rare thing in football. They stood up for their friend against the bosses. Being a footballer is a privileged job, because they're so well-paid, but it's a job like any other. If they don't agree with the boss, they have a right to show that."

Poulet believes the reaction betrays a degree of snobbery. "They (the critics) made the most of the ethnic origins of the players," he says. "It's always the same. If a player gets out of a flash BMW and he's an Arab, then he's arrogant. If he's white, he's made it. French tradition is the right to go on strike. Liberté, égalité, fraternité - but not for those blokes there. When we're winning we're together, but when we're losing, we're not. The reality of French society is 2010, not 1998."

Dhorasoo picks up the thread. "Those guys who come through the academies sacrifice their lives to succeed," he argues. "They have a huge talent, so why aren't they considered like others who work for that? Because they come from the estates, because their spending is considered vulgar, and because they didn't study."

Dhorasoo's career effectively ended when he was sacked by PSG in 2006 following a bitter dispute with then-coach Guy Lacombe. His friend Luyindula has experienced a similar situation, until recently frozen out at the Parc des Princes in a dispute in which he claimed to have been "harassed" and "humiliated." Despite the wealthy new regime, plus ça change in the capital, it seems.

"PSG is PSG," Dhorasoo shrugs. "Football doesn't really respect general working rights. We sort it all out amongst ourselves, like an agreement between friends. There hasn't been much solidarity for Luyindula. He's a mate. I called around to try and mobilise a bit of support for him, but a lot of footballers live in comfort that they don't want to lose. It's dangerous for the (existing) system."

Dhorasoo thinks Substitute retains a universal relevance. "It was a real eyewitness account," he emphasises. "It's not like I was talking to a journalist. All of the things I said in the film I never told anyone elsewhere, not in any interviews. My story is the story of what happens in football every day - who plays, who doesn't play, who's on the bench, who's right, who's wrong. It's not just my story. It's everyone's."

• Substitute was screened at the Institut Français's Cine Lumière in London as part of the fifth European Doc Festival, which continues until 23rd February. Full programme here

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