Ahilan Ratnamohan, the director of Michael Essien, I want to play as you… refers to something called the ‘football slave trade’. In all honesty, I didn’t think there was one. But upon leaving the UK première, my understanding has changed.

Ahilan Ratnamohan © Jonas Lampens
Ahilan Ratnamohan
© Jonas Lampens
Human trafficking within football is the focus of the drama as 5 African footballers tell stories of their travels from their homeland to various parts of Europe in the hopes of becoming a professional footballer – just like Ghanaian born Michael Essien who plays for AC Milan. As the nation turns its attention to the world cup in Brazil, Ratnamohan reveals another side to professional football on the lesser known stage of Stratford Circus.

A drumbeat is heard before anything is seen. The percussive rhythm resonates, conjuring Africa and furthering the idea of the exploitation that happens to young men that hail from this part of the world. Interrupting the sound, a man runs onto the stage doing football drills, accompanied by the squeak of his trainers scuffing along the floor. Agile and quick, he scatters to and fro completely absorbed in his footwork. One by one, four more men dressed in an assortment of shorts, t shirts and vests join the first man, until the footwork builds into a group piece in unison. These sections of choreography make many appearances throughout the production and although they exemplify the amount of training each aspiring footballer undertakes, the choreographed footwork mars the production. If the footwork was slightly more elaborate and not so lengthy, then it would have been the perfect contrast to the dialogue in the performance. But unfortunately it deviates from the strongest part of the production – each man’s story of struggle.

Michael Essien, I want to play as you © Paulien Vertackt
Michael Essien, I want to play as you
© Paulien Vertackt

Ratnamohan displays just how difficult it is for African migrants to achieve their footballing dream. Using a combination of speech, movement and ball work, their heart-breaking ordeal is brought to light and the biggest hindrance is revealed. Men travel from their homeland with the promise of fame and fortune, however broken promises litter the performance. One player reveals that a scout promised him he would play for Manchester United, but he now plays for a lower league team in Finland. Another reveals that his scout booked him into a hotel for three weeks, only to realise that by the second week his scout wasn’t coming back. Each footballer has a unique but unfortunately similar story about their journey to becoming a professional football player in Europe. Each journey is plagued by the threat of deportation, injury and a strong sense of unfamiliarity in an unknown country. The ordeals that each player has experienced is harrowing and the five West-African football performers give validity to each of their portrayals. Perhaps the authenticity is so compelling because the stories are true. They understand first-hand the pitfalls that make their dreams that much more unattainable.

Ahilan Ratnamohan © Jonas Lampens
Ahilan Ratnamohan
© Jonas Lampens

However, although the situation of these men is disheartening, Ratnamohan doesn’t allow it to overpower the piece. He effectively implements comedy to counteract the sombre tone that Michael Essien, I want to play as you… delivers. Humour weaves through the production bringing the performance and its performers to life. The five players are brilliant in their role. As the piece drives forward, you can’t help but admire their positive and amusing demeanour. The use of language is equally as effective. As well as speaking in English, the men also speak in their native languages (several hail from Nigeria, where many languages are spoken). The mix of languages is a welcome addition as it adds authenticity to the work, and furthers the point of African footballers being exploited in Europe – an issue that I wasn’t aware of.

Michael Essien, I want to play as you © Paulien Verlackt
Michael Essien, I want to play as you
© Paulien Verlackt

Insight within a production is beautiful. When true life events weave their way around the plot and you can leave a performance with more knowledge on a topic than when you first arrived, then the show has done something right. Ratnamohan ticks all of these boxes and produces an enlightening hour of performance with Michael Essien, I want to play as you…