By Nick Clark
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2784

A touching—yet uneasy—story of refugee footballers

Captains of Zaatari has won praise and plaudits for its portrayal of the dreams of two young Syrian refugees. But approach with caution
Issue 2784
Two young men play football on a broad, dusty road

Mahmoud and Fawzi play in the Zaatari refugee camp

There are glimmers of insight into life in the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, in Captains of Zaatari.

This documentary is the story of teenagers Fawzi and Mahmoud, who dream of becoming professional footballers as a way out of Jordan’s Zaatari camp.

To them, it seems a more realistic proposition than getting a degree and a job. “There are no jobs here,” says Fawzi, sitting in candlelight on the floor of his family’s pre-fab shelter. “People with certificates collect garbage.”

Though blunt, this early exposition doesn’t feel forced. The film opens with scenes of lads playing barefoot on the camp’s gravelly, uneven ground. It’s only as the story progresses that we realise this is more than play.

There’s a tournament. Its ­players, with team kits and coaches, are observed by official-looking people from outside the camp.

Something about the way they play says the match means a lot. They’re vying for selection to play abroad in a tournament in Qatar.

We’re never properly introduced to the tournament’s organiser, the Aspire Academy, and it never quite takes centre stage. But its fairy godmother-like intervention—whisking the boys away to a possible bright future in the Gulf—underpins the whole thing.

Is it a charity? An NGO? A bit of digging online reveals Aspire is a very well-funded training centre set up by Qatar’s royal family to promote Qatari sport internationally.

So the film is timely, given Qatar’s efforts to boost its reputation by hosting the World Cup next year.

Incidentally, the World Cup is also the subject of director Ali El Arabi’s next documentary. A football fan from India gets a job as a stadium worker in Qatar so that he might follow his dream to watch the matches. Hmm.

The most moving part of Captains of Zaatari isn’t to do with the tournament. Fawzi’s dad is sick, working undocumented, and separated from his family after being arrested.

It’s one of the genuine insights into refugee life that earned the documentary some very good reviews when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. And the film has had support from a broad range of established film and documentary institutes.

But the subtle, paternal ­presence of the Qatari state in this story demands a healthy dose of scepticism.

Captains of Zaatari is available to stream at

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