The Guinean exchange student who became a football star in a small East German town | Film | DW | 21.03.2019
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Film

The Guinean exchange student who became a football star in a small East German town

Shown at Berlin's International Football Film Festival, "Pelé aus Neubrandenburg" highlights the little-known connection between the GDR and Africa. Its director told DW what's inspiring about Chérif Souleymane's story.

In the film Pelé aus Neubrandenburg, the name Pelé doesn't refer to the Brazilian football star, but to Chérif Souleymane (also known as Souleymane Chérif), a Guinean athlete who started a successful football career in the East German town of Neubrandenburg while doing a two-year socialist student exchange in the 1960s.

The film by Benjamin Unger and Matthias Hufmann is part of the 11mm International Football Film Festival, opening in Berlin this Thursday. It's an ode to football as a transformative experience, which, at its best, can unite people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Souleymane's prowess as a striker helped launch the small-town team into the first division. Yet, once they arrived, he was met with a nasty surprise: An East German statute barred foreigners from playing in the first division.

In 1962, he returned to Guinea, where his football career blossomed. He played for Guinea in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and was African Footballer of the Year in 1972.

Today, as he walks through the streets at home, he is flanked by young men who look up to him. Although he may not be the actual Pelé, he's undoubtedly Guinea's football VIP.

Read more: Trautmann: From WWII enemy to football hero

Film still from PELÉ AUS NEUBRANDENBURG (NDR)

Souleymane: An acclaimed player in Neubrandenburg, but barred from playing in the first division

The film focuses on Souleymane's strong relationships with his teammates and his feeling of being largely accepted in a small community where it was far from common to meet an African person. "Children touched me to see if I had coal on my skin," he recalls in the film. "Everyone was curious about why I had come to the GDR."

There were also unpleasant experiences: the parents of his German girlfriend turning down his marriage proposal, racist slurs hurled by players from opposing teams. Yet overall, Souleymane's story seems to be one of acceptance.

DW spoke with filmmaker Benjamin Unger about why this story is still relevant today.

Why did you choose to do a film about this Souleymane? Is he well-known in Germany?

In Germany, almost nobody knows him. But in Neubrandenburg he is very well-known by sports fans, because it was such a special time when he was in the GDR back then. It's simply fascinating that here in Germany he couldn't play in the first division because he was a foreigner. And he had such incredible talent and an amazing career.

Read more: 11 of our favorite football films

View of Neubrandenburg (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Wüstneck)

Neubrandenburg is in northeastern Germany and now has a population of about 65,000

Why weren't foreigners allowed to play in the first division?

The GDR football wanted their own people to play football well and basically be the best so there's the feeling that the GDR is strong. It's a bit political because it's a sign to those outside the GDR that its citizens are the best football players.

Souleyman came to Germany through a GDR exchange program with Guinea. Many people outside of Germany may not know that communist East Germany had student and worker exchange programs with African countries. What were these programs?

There was a big exchange with Angola, as well as Mozambique. At the time, it was a little bit unclear what kind of state Guinea would become: Would it be a socialist country or a democratic one? It cooperated a little bit with the East German state but also with West Germany. The GDR tried to work with many African countries to gain recognition. It was a little bit of a game where East Germany tried to be internationally present.

So it was essentially a form of diplomacy?

The GDR wanted to be internationally recognized… with many connections internationally, they would be strong. That they could basically say, "We are very international, we have many allies all over the world." They could tell their citizens, "Look at how powerful we are; how many countries recognize us." They had a lot of exchanges with students and workers coming to the GDR who could then go back to their countries and talk about how great the GDR was. That was also part of the idea.

In many ways, this story it reminds me of a situation we might still see in Germany today, as a story of acceptance in a small town where refugees have come to live in recent years. How do you see this story as being relevant today?

The relevance to today is that it shows that on the personal level, that there are no borders. When in East Germany today in a city like Neubrandenburg there are no foreigners on the sports teams or in the workplace or in the middle of a neighborhood, then one can start to feel that foreigners are a danger to Germany — basically populist assumptions. As soon as people get to know one another on a personal level, they see each other simply as people and see how great one's personality can be.

With Chérif, everyone who spent time with him in Neubrandenburg says first that he was a very dignified, great person…it's not about how good of a football player he was, he was also that, but the first thing they say is that he was an amazing person.

Considering refugees in Germany today, if they could be allowed to work, play on football teams, live in the middle of neighborhoods or do an activity together with locals on the weekend, ride bikes together, that is so important and it was the core of the situation with Chérif.

The 11mm International Football Film Festival Berlin is held from March 21 - 25, and the film Pelé aus Neubrandenburg screens on Friday.

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