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Dhorasoo's lonely tale of life as a tournament bit player


Vikash Dhorasoo with France coach Raymond Domenech during training at the tournament (Photo by PASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Vikash Dhorasoo with France coach Raymond Domenech during training at the tournament (Photo by PASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Vikash Dhorasoo with France coach Raymond Domenech during training at the tournament (Photo by PASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Former France international spoke to Glenn Moore about his remarkable film that reveals truth behind veneer of glamour and glory at major events

The pre-match video is a standard coaching tool used to motivate, relax, or instruct players. It is certain, however, that none of the coaches at Euro 2008 will have packed a DVD of Substitute even though the film will prove very relevant to many of the footballers present in Austria and Switzerland.

On one level Substitute is an award-winning art movie about dashed dreams, a fractured relationship and the way group activities can leave the individual isolated. More prosaically it suggests some of those England internationals attending Wayne Rooney's stag do will have a more fulfilling experience than if they had qualified for Euro 2008.

Two years ago Vikash Dhorasoo headed for Germany, and the World Cup finals, with a justified sense of optimism. The attacking midfielder had featured in all France's qualification matches and had known the coach, Raymond Domenech, for 15 years having been picked by him for France from the Under-17s onwards. As a consequence Dhorasoo, a slightly built stylist who had played with Lyons and Milan and was then at Paris St-Germain, viewed Domenech as a father figure. Over the course of the World Cup the relationship would break down to the extent that the pair no longer speak after Dhorasoo found himself marginalised.

This would just be another example of a footballer falling out with his coach, except Dhorasoo committed his thoughts to celluloid. This was the consequence of a collaboration with Fred Poulet, a French singer, writer and film-maker. Even by the eclectic standards of Les Bleus, Dhorasoo was unusual. Though born and bred in Le Havre he is Indian by descent, his family arriving in France via Mauritius. He is also politically and artistically inclined, which is how he met Poulet.

Ahead of the finals, Poulet gave Dhorasoo a tape recorder and a Super 8 camera. The latter is silent, and produces dark, grainy footage which, once the eye has adjusted, adds to the melancholic atmosphere.

Poulet explained: "If you propose to a footballer to make a movie in the World Cup it seems opportunistic, to make money or to get famous. It was important for me to involve Vikash in the filming. With a video camera you can be a spy, you push a button and go away, with Super 8 you cannot."

Nevertheless, when the film was announced, after the World Cup, in which France lost the final on penalties to Italy, the hostile reaction suggested Domenech and the players believed Dhorasoo behaved like a spy. There are actually very few shots of team-mates – Sylvain Wiltord playing air guitar in a corridor, Lilian Thuram signing autographs, and, poignantly, David Trezeguet, having missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out, straightening his tie in the mirror before going out to face the press. It has been inferred that the players' general absence was for legal reasons but both film-makers insist not.

"The reaction of Domenech, [Patrick] Vieira, [Willy] Sagnol was very violent and stupid," said Dhorasoo when we met in London. "They talk about copyright secrets, revelations, it was stupid. They were not in the film, they could not win money from it. There are no revelations about the other players, the team, about [Zinedine] Zidane or Vieira. When they understood this they suddenly were not interested by the film. It was very funny." There is an early indication that Dhorasoo's World Cup may not go to plan when he is booed at Stade de France when replacing Zidane in a warm-up against Mexico. "Everyone expects [Franck] Ribéry, someone else than me," he notes. As the squad's plane lands at Hannover, Dhorasoo intones: "I am in the 23, no one can take away my good fortune. Even if I don't play it's not so bad."

That proves a misjudgement. Dhorasoo, left on the bench for the opening game against the Swiss, gets 10 minutes and almost scores a winner. Ribéry is dropped for the match with South Korea, but Domenech picks Florent Malouda. Dhorasoo gets six minutes as France draw again.

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Next is Togo, with France needing a win. Zidane is suspended, Ribéry and Malouda play. Dhorasoo watches. His World Cup is over, and he knows it.

"If I had scored against Switzerland it would have changed," he told me. "With this goal I have my true story. I play.

"After [playing] Mexico I understood I would not be a main player, my situation had changed. 'OK, no problem, I am going, I am on the bench. I am a player of Domenech, he will play me during the match'.

"I was very disappointed to understand how it finished. The relationship we had is finished. Before the World Cup, Ribéry did not play, Malouda did not play, Zidane played but he [Domenech] always found a place for me on the pitch. After, I don't know why, the situation had changed. He had no explanation. He talked about tactics, techniques, but he did not give me the reason."

At the beginning of the film he says of Domenech: "He believes in me." By the knock-out stages he says: "I feel like I am almost his son. For two years, he trained me to climb a mountain. And the day I could climb it, he took the neighbour's son. This is a betrayal."

By now this strangely compelling movie consists of Dhorasoo filming himself in his room as he unburdens his thoughts to his tape recorder, intercut with scenes from outside the camp largely shot by Poulet. The pair meet, clandestinely, to exchange film reels. The hotel, an isolated castle near Hamelin, begins to seem like a prison.

"My World Cup – what is it? It's my room, and poker games," says Dhorasoo. "I've been buried. I don't know why." By the time France play Brazil in the quarter-final Dhorasoo is talking about "them", not "we".

"On the bench you are always watching the coach, waiting to get the nod," he told me. "Yes, you wish the other team would score. It is human. Being an attacking midfielder I am more likely to come on if we are losing."

Dhorasoo did not, though, go as far as the Scottish reserves in 1978 who, when Archie Gemmill scored against the Netherlands to give Scotland hope of reaching the next round, reacted with despair as it would have meant staying in Argentina.

Said Dhorasoo: "If we lose we are finished, and I don't hope we lose, but if we win [and he does not come on] I know I will not play the next match. It is a very strange situation."

At least Dhorasoo got 16 minutes. Several players did not play at all. It is often so. Marcello Lippi, helped by Italy qualifying with ease from their group, gave every outfield player a game in Germany, emphasising the squad nature of a tournament campaign. By contrast Les Ferdinand went to two tournaments with England, in 1996 and 1998, without getting a kick. Sometimes players are taken along for the experience, like Rio Ferdinand in 1998, but Les Ferdinand was 31 in 1998. The worst position is third goalkeeper. They know it would take a double calamity to get a match.

The non-players do tend to stick together, said Dhorasoo, somewhat like the "dirt trackers", as the midweek side on Lions' rugby tours have been called. "It is hard to be motivated for training," said Dhorasoo. France reach the final, but he is there in name only – a fact made literal by a shot of his shirt hanging on the dressing-room wall. Afterwards he is relieved to finally get home. Now he has no idea where his losers' medal is.

Two years on the 34-year-old is retired after falling out with the coaches at PSG, then Livorno. He was wanted by Arsenal when he joined Milan in 2004, and would have joined Fulham in 2006 but for a knee injury. Now he is focusing on the artistic fall-out from Substitute, and politics; he is likely to work with the recently re-elected Mayor of Paris, the Socialist Bertrand Delanoë.

Helping young people from the troubled suburbs is one aim. While he "likes Paris", "feels French" and enjoys the multi-culturalism of France – his wife is white – he adds that talk, in the wake of France's 1998 victory, of "Black, brown, white", was "a political conceit".

"After the victory everybody thinks, 'We are all French, we are all together, we are all brothers'. It is not true. It is stupid. The situation has not changed. There is still discrimination like before." Even now, he says, he gets stopped by the French police when driving in Paris, only for them to ease off when they realise who he is.

Dhorasoo now views his World Cup with equanimity. "I am happy because I have the film. It is a beautiful film and it is more important than the Cup, the goal, because it is my story with Fred. We are friends and we now have something together for life."

He adds: "If I had played more the film maybe would not have been so good, and I would not be here. This film took me all over the world and we don't know when the story will stop. It is incredible. My future is very good."

He smiles, an expression rarely seen in the film.

'Substitute' will be released on DVD next month