JOGO FILM CLUB: SUBSTITUTE
Written by Ili Hyseni
Vikash Dhorasoo was not a conventional footballer. Cut from a different cloth, Dhorasoo was curious and more culturally aware than his contemporaries. Born into a hard working family of Indo-Mauritian descent, he grew up in the northern French port town of Harfleur. In his autobiography Dhorasoo admits he was probably more likely to become a cricketer or Bollywood star than a footballer, but after picking up a football for the first time; no other path in life made sense to him.
A diminutive but extremely skilful player, Dhorasoo started his club career at local side Le Havre where he made his professional debut in 1993. In total, he made 137 appearances for the side across a 5 year stay there; scoring 4 goals from central midfield. His performances garnered attention from a wide array of clubs both in France and further afield including Atletico Madrid but Lyon attracted him most, moving there in 1998 for €6 million.
Linking up with the likes of Alain Cavéglia, Dhorasoo helped his side finish third in his debut season. Despite their attacking talent, Lyon would continue to fall short for the next two seasons and in 2001 with manager Jacques Santini not recognising the talent he had on his hands, he sent Dhorasoo to Bordeaux on a season long loan.
After a year in Bordeaux, the next two seasons would be spent back at Lyon; this time more successfully. Dhorasoo linked up effectively with Juninho as Lyon laid the foundations for their decade of dominance. Titles were won (Ligue 1 twice in 02-03 and 03-04) and after deservedly winning the Player of the Year award, many fans considered Dhorasoo as Zidane’s successor in the French national team.
However while 2002-03 was a fruitful season, 2003-04 proved to be more frustrating. Lyon were playing well and making progress in both league and Champions League but a mid season injury meant that Dhorasoo fell down the pecking order and was replaced by Mahamadou Diarra; falling out of favour and struggling to rediscover form, the midfielder joined AC Milan in 2004. Game time was just as elusive in Milan as Dhorasoo found himself competing with Pirlo for minutes and after finishing the season on 12 appearances, it was clear he had to move on.
On the international stage, Dhorasoo is famous for being the second player of Indian descent to play at a World Cup and the only player of Indian descent to be part of a team to make it to the World Cup final. He played a crucial part in France’s qualifying campaign and was favoured ahead of Pires by Raymond Domenech as his star sign was deemed more trustworthy by the manager. Dhorasoo’s technical ability and creativity proved to be a tonic for a French side dealing with the international retirement of Zidane. With this in mind, he would have been forgiven for thinking he would play an important role at the World Cup.
The 2006 World Cup should indeed have been a crowning moment for France’s first player of Indian descent, a moment to cherish and celebrate the nation’s integration and tolerance of its communities. Unfortunately it became the moment that Dhorasoo would fall out of love with football forever.
As mentioned above, Dhorasoo was different to his contemporaries. He was an outsider, a creatively minded individual who had little respect for authority and often liked to challenge it head on. Fearing he would be a bit-part player at the World Cup, Dhorasoo and his filmmaker friend Fred Poulet decided to create a film documenting the player’s experiences on the sidelines.
‘Substitute’ follows Dhorasoo’s time in Germany and gives viewers an unprecedented look into the life of a footballer at a major tournament. What is revealed is something much less glamorous than many football fans would expect. The 1 hour 10 minutes long movie which is filmed by both Dhorasoo and Poulet, portrays the player as someone akin to a prisoner grappling with the reality of not being able to feature for his nation.
Filmed with a Super 8 camera, ‘Substitute’ is nostalgic yet wistful. Dhorasoo takes the camera wherever he goes and films himself and his surroundings in ‘vlog’ style, giving the viewer an acute sense of what he is experiencing. Initially hopeful about his prospects at the tournament, Dhorasoo eventually resigns to the fact that game time will be near impossible to come by. Having played only 16 minutes in the group stages, the French midfielder is forced to watch his team from the sidelines; leading to disillusionment and a detachment from his teammates. He is ignored by his manager and stands awkwardly around while his teammates play rondo. This disillusionment is made clear in a piece to camera in which he talks about France’s win against Brazil in the quarter-final. He refers to his team as “they” rather than “we”, an example of how he feels alienated from the rest of the group.
With most of his time spent alone and in his hotel room reading books and watching television, Dhorasoo is someone stuck in a nightmare impossible to escape. The routine becomes mundane and as France make the final we are allowed into his thoughts as he questions whether he is even worthy of being considered a World Cup winner. Despite trying to reconcile himself with his important role in qualifying, Dhorasoo feels that the World Cup would not be his to claim.
France of course went on to lose the final and even though the team was lauded on arrival back in Paris, Dhorasoo was glad to be over with it. “After the final I was happy it finished - I wanted to go home and stop with football and this team. I didn't like football enough to want to continue to play that way. It's only a question of money. I'm happy to have finished. I'm not a good product to sell at the World Cup - it's big business and I'm not representative of French society. I'm not white, I'm not from north Africa, I'm not black - I'm different. I'm small, I've got long hair - I'm not commercial.”
‘Substitute’ while not necessarily a feel good film, is raw and real. The edit is unpretentious and follows a dreamlike structure. The footage is grainy and aged making it feel familiar yet distant. Dhorasoo and Poulet were able to provide something that had not been seen before and unlike for most of his career, the player received many plaudits for it. It also wasn’t the last time he would be involved in filmmaking. Since retiring in 2007 after a deeply unsuccessful attempt at reviving his career, Dhorasoo has worked as a director and producer and has even had acting roles, featuring in French comedy ‘Simply Black’ (2020) alongside Lilian Thuram.
A man of conviction with a reputation for being outspoken, Dhorasoo has channeled his curiosity into different areas. Alongside working in film, he has played poker professionally across Europe and has championed causes close to his heart. In 2011 he started Tatane, a community that aims to foster social bonds through the power of football, while he is also an avid supporter of So Foot Gay, a platform that fights homophobia in French football.
‘Substitute’ (2007) is available to rent on Vimeo: