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Guest Post – The Other Final: kicking a ball with strangers

Bhutan v Montserrat, Changlimithang Stadium, Thimphu, Bhutan, 30 June 2002 – Photo: KesselsKramer

By Simon McKenzie

Holland’s Golden Generation – led by sublimely talented players including Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and Ruud van Nistelrooy, and named the FIFA Team of the Year in 2000 – were expected to qualify easily for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. When they failed to do so, two Dutch creative agency types named Johan Kramer and Matthijs de Jongh were crestfallen. They had held high hopes for the Oranje, but, by September of 2001, after a calamitous Netherlands defeat to the Republic of Ireland in Dublin, it was clear that the pair would have to make other plans for the following Northern Hemisphere summer.

Overcome after their national team’s disastrous campaign – or perhaps guided by St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and therefore football tragics – Kramer and De Jongh scoured the FIFA statistics for the two lowest-ranked teams in the world, who at that time represented the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan (rank: 202) and the volcano-affected Caribbean island and British Overseas Territory of Montserrat (rank: 203). The two Dutchmen decided that these lesser lights of international football should play a match on the same day that the World Cup final was to be contested in Yokohama, Japan. What followed was a logistical nightmare culminating in a match that only a genuine football nerd could love (unless you happened to support Bhutan or Montserrat, and/or be related to a player), but it did give the world perhaps the finest documentary ever made about the game – The Other Final.

Like most of the coverage on ITBOTN, The Other Final is a wonderful antidote to the rampant commercialism of elite international and club football. It’s about the sheer enjoyment of the sport, and the way it can connect people from very different cultures. Seeing the Montserratian team (national sport, cricket; unofficial anthem, Hot Hot Hot) surrounded by Bhutanese children in traditional clothes (national sport, archery) and signing autographs is guaranteed to make you grin. No less a player than Roberto Baggio was captivated by the idea: “At a time when football is commercialised, this was a very simple project that put the love of the game first. It was able to show us that football is a language that everyone can speak,” he said.

Kramer wrote and directed the documentary, which was produced by his company KesselsKramer. It showed at several film festivals after its release in 2003 (I was lucky enough to see it at the Edinburgh International Film Festival) and was released on DVD soon after. New copies are now hard to find, and can be expensive. Second-hand copies can be found relatively cheaply – although why anyone would part with this film is beyond me (new and second-hand copies are available on Amazon, among other sites). The full movie can be seen as a nine-part upload on YouTube. (I have my doubts about the uploader’s copyright permissions – we will remove this link if anyone involved in the documentary or the legal profession asks us to.)

Quite little of the film actually focuses on the match – most of it is about the journey from crazy idea to reality, the background of the two little-known and disparate countries and their players, and the resulting meeting of cultures. There were plenty of hurdles to overcome along the way, from flight delays to late changes in managers (tragedy and politics are present, even at this level) and difficulty in finding qualified match officials. With typical shortsightedness, none of the huge corporations associated with multi-million-dollar sponsorship of the World Cup could find it in themselves to throw a few crumbs towards this game. But it all came together on the day, with something like 20,000 spectators – and a pitch-invading dog – gathering to see the match at Changlimithang Stadium in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu.

Renowned Dutch football photographer Hans van der Meer also travelled to Bhutan for the game and put together a remarkable 140-page photobook, also published by KesselsKramer. Like the DVD, it’s now hard to find. However, it’s well worth searching a good second-hand book site to find a copy. (Van der Meer has published four books of stunning football photography, and I will write about those in my next post on ITBOTN.) Many of his still images are used in the documentary.

Some Bhutanese radio commentary (in English) from the game is used over the match footage, and it’s as heartwarming and completely non-cynical as the film. After Montserrat concede an avoidable goal, the commentator describes the scene: “Cecil Lake is sitting down. It seems that the goalkeeper of Montserrat doesn’t want to get up any more. He is so desolate, completely alone here high up in the Himalayas… oh I have so much compassion for Mr Lake.”

The Other Final is full of compassion for its subjects, but it’s in no way condescending – unlike some of the headlines in the British newspapers (the game got considerable press coverage around the world at the time, megabucks sponsors or not). After the match, the score all but forgotten, the players sit together to watch the World Cup final on television from Yokohama – where the stakes are much higher, but the ultimate meaning is less. World Cup finals come around every four years, but The Other Final was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it makes for unforgettable viewing.

The last frames of the film come with a great piece of advice that sums up the spirit behind the idea and the production: “Now leave the cinema… and go kick a ball with a stranger.”

[Simon McKenzie is a Kiwi living in Norway, who didn’t know what the fuss was about football until he saw Roma play. He is now a fan of Roma, Dunfermline Athletic, Universitario de Sucre and Barcelona in that approximate order.]

No winners, no losers: The Other Final’s trophy – Photo: KesselsKramer

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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