It's more Barton Fink than Thierry Henry. A man is on his own in a German hotel room. The longer he spends there, the more alienated he becomes. "I am not going crazy. Don't worry," he says to himself, but his exasperation is evident. He doesn't want to answer the telephone. When he does go out, he takes his 8mm camera with him and shoots grainy footage of hotel corridors or the bowels of football stadia.
These are moments from the feature-documentary Substitute, one of the most unusual films about football ever made. The year is 2006. The man in the room is Vikash Dhorasoo, part of the French World Cup squad. Dhorasoo, considered to be "the French football intellectual," played every game as France qualified for Germany 2006, but once the tournament started he became a marginal figure.
Coach Raymond Domenech sent him on for a few minutes in the first-round matches against Switzerland (when he came close to scoring) and South Korea, but for the rest of the tournament, as France marched on to the final and to ignominious defeat against Italy, he was a quizzical observer on the sidelines.
Try as he might, Dhorasoo simply couldn't get used to life as a substitute. "No one can take away my good fortune. I am in this team to the end. I belong to the 23 players. I am in this team till the end, even if I don't play," he says early on, as the French team arrives in Germany, but a few weeks later, confined to his hotel, his remarks grow ever more pessimistic. "I'm getting fed up here in Germany. I wonder what I came here for, except for a film, because my World Cup went wrong," he says. "Three days ago against Spain, I felt like crying. I'm not a supporter, I'm not a spectator, I'm a football player and I'm not playing football."
Substitute shows a side of a top footballer's life that the public rarely sees. Whenever the French team arrives at a new hotel, security is tight. The players generally enter through the kitchens. When they are not training, there are lengthy spells of ennui. Despite the luxury of their surroundings, they seem almost like prisoners.
The film (which screened last week at the IDFA Documentary Festival in Amsterdam) had its origins when Dhorasoo was entrusted with a Super-8 camera by his friend, the singer, writer and film-maker Fred Poulet. While Dhorasoo was travelling round Germany with the French squad, Poulet was following behind, also armed with an 8mm camera. From time to time, Dhorasoo and Poulet arranged clandestine meetings at which the footballer would give the film-maker the three-minute reels of film he had shot. This is not a conventional video diary. The 8mm footage has a grainy, dream-like quality. You can always hear the camera whirring. If you didn't know better, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching an experimental movie by some underground film-maker.
Just occasionally, there are references to the world beyond Dhorasoo's hotel room. There are intimations of troubles to come in a pre-tournament friendly against Mexico at the Stade De France, when Dhorasoo is sent on to replace Zinedine Zidane (playing his last international in France) and the crowd react at seeing their favourite removed with a chorus of boos.
Dhorasoo responds philosophically: "These people who come to the stadium hissing and hating me, I'm sure they are the people I like and defend. I defend them because I imagine that they belong to the masses, they come from popular areas. This is where I come from. They're the ones I defend, even if have nothing to do with them politically or socially. It's a paradox but I will keep defending them."
Since the World Cup ended, his career has not become any easier. Earlier this autumn, his contract with the Italian team Livorno was terminated. When I meet him and Poulet in a hotel in Amsterdam, he says that he is looking for a new club. If he doesn't find one, he may hang up his boots "and maybe make more films," the 34-year-old says, seemingly tongue-in-cheek.
Dhorasoo and Poulet met after the footballer read an article that the film-maker had written in a magazine and contacted him. The two became friends. Poulet says that they didn't expect Substitute would turn into a fully blown feature documentary. "We just wanted to try something because I knew Super-8mm very well and I began to know Vikash better and better. I thought it would be possible to produce some cinema with the alchemy of Vikash and Super-8."
Substitute is not a movie that you could imagine from an average footballer: Dhorasoo is clearly not the type to play cards or go shopping with the WAGs. "I felt a little bit sad at first, but so much has happened since then," he says when asked what he thinks about his experiences at Germany 2006 now.
One subject he has no desire to discuss is his relationship with Domenech. For many years, the coach had championed the young footballer. Then, when the World Cup started, Dhorasoo was suddenly dropped from the starting line. "I feel like I am almost his son," he confides in the film. "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." Has Domenech seen the film? Dhorasoo doesn't think so. "Maybe on the internet," he speculates.
Whatever his disappointment, he enjoyed making his film and sees it as an important document. "After the final, everybody remembers the winners. They forget the losers. I don't have the World Cup but I have this film."
Substitute has been winning rapturous reviews from critics, but Poulet and Dhorasoo aren't sure that it will have the same appeal for football fans. After all, there is hardly any footage of the game. The existential musings of a disaffected midfielder aren't exactly likely to excite anyone wanting to see goalmouth action. Dhorasoo himself still loves football, but with some reservations. "Now, it is all about money and business. In sport in general, all you hear are stories about doping, of bad refereeing, of fights on the pitch. It is not the same."
Poulet, too, claims to be passionate about football, but says that Substitute isn't really a sports film. "The football is like a Trojan horse so we could make cinema," he says. What he and Dhorasoo set out to provide was an intimate account of the life and feelings of a professional player when he is at his most isolated. Subsitute doesn't even refer in passing to the head-butt that resulted in Zidane being sent off during the final. Instead, we see footage of a desolate changing room in the wake of defeat.
"You've got to face things. All my career has consisted of that," Dhorasoo reflects. He doesn't want to sound self-pitying or disloyal, but simply wants to be honest about his feelings at being first "the guy who replaces Zidane" and then the guy who doesn't get on the field at all.
'Substitute' will be released in the UK next summer during Euro 2008