Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war since 1992. For almost 30 years, lives have been violently torn apart by the Taliban, ISIS/ISIL, Pakistan, and the USA. So why is this film titled Men of Hope? Because when Afghans can watch their National Team play, it brings hope to locals, migrants, and refugees, that the homeland can return to normalcy.
The then 50 year old Croatian coach Petar Šegrt is the charismatic wellspring who pumps professionalism and hope into the National Team players and its fans. Having earned a UEFA Pro license, he has coached in Germany, Georgia, Indonesia, and Bosnia. He is no stranger to upheaval, and the Afghanistan Football Federation signs him for a 5 year term.
The documentary follows Segrt’s success in building the team over his first 15 months as they try to qualify for the Asian Cup. The directors first learned of Segrt from this Welt article.
Throughout the film, we also watch Benyamin, a precocious 8 year old footballer who loves the game. His father trains the boy 4 hours a day at an indoor facility and tries to increase his son’s visibility. The pair represent Afghan fans, and Benyamin’s freedom to practice and develop his game is another metaphor for the future of Afghanistan and hope.
Bringing hope to the Afghani people was the intent of the team and of the film. Football gives people joy and harmonious unity. Even women are well-represented in attendance in the stands. However, the corrupt nature of the Federation stands in the way.
It’s the pattern of most documentaries that the filmmakers have to go where the story takes them. In the case of Men of Hope, Segrt is abruptly cut off from his job when he refuses to let the Federation place Zohib Islam Amiri on the team. Amiri is Afghanistan’s most capped player, but he has admitted to match-fixing NT games.
The team is turned over to 80 year old German coach Otto Pfister, who does not seem to know or care who is put on the roster. The team wins no more games.
There isn’t much soccer in the film, mostly brief scenes of practices, either that of the NT or Benyamin. In a Kicking + Screening interview, Director Till Derenbach admitted that he never put foot in Afghanistan to film, as it was too dangerous.
However, Segrt recruited 9 Afghanis from Germany, Europe, Asia and the USA. So the film has interviews of several players who migrated to Germany or the Netherlands as children and now experience Afghanistan for the first time in memory (Captain Faysal Shayesteh, Masih Saighani, Hassan Amin, Djelaludin Sharityar, and Kanischka Taher). All of the players are in lower level European leagues, or some play in the I-League. One European player dares not even tell his mother that he is going into Afghanistan to play, he lies that they are playing in Dubai.
The film also highlights the external problems that the team must face. The team and Benyamin travel to Tajikistan for a home game, as home games cannot be played in Afghanistan. In another example, team administrator Mustafa Mehrzad struggles to get the Dubai consulate to issue visas to enter Malaysia for the players based in Afghanistan. No country wants to honor an Afghani passport. It’s a similar situation to that of the Palestine NT in the 2006 film Goal Dreams.
Because of problems with the film festival stream, the last 20 minutes of the movie had the wrong audio track and wrong captions. It’s not for me to fault a film that took several years to make. The film captures a moment in time when Afghani football attracts more headlines than terror and violence. It may not exist much longer. Men of Hope doesn’t really spend much time on the situation in Afghanistan, but with the current withdrawal of American and European forces, we can only assume that this country’s hope will be drained again.
7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7