As its title suggests, After the Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United follows Israel’s underdog Bnei Sakhnin soccer team in the aftermath of their shocking advance to the National Cup. Through shots of dusty small-town Sakhnin and straightforward interviews with the team’s Arab president, Jewish coach, players (a mix of Arab, Jewish, and foreign-born athletes), and even the anchorman for Neptune Studios (the local TV station that makes our public access seem as polished as CNN), filmmaker Christopher Browne travels far beyond David-and-Goliath cliché to paint a portrait of life in a schizophrenic state. Instead of charting the team’s skyrocketing to the top of their game, Browne takes the reverse course of documenting its inevitable downward spiraling in a land in which over a million legal citizens are Muslim Arabs uneasily residing in a Jewish state.
In fact, what’s most interesting about this doc from the director of the bowling pic A League of Ordinary Gentlemen is how anticlimactic the actual games shown on screen are. The tension lies less on the field than in the stands, where fans view Bnei Sakhnin not as a sports team, but as the only symbol of working Arab-Jewish coexistence in the entire nation. Which is pretty heavy stuff for a bunch of underpaid and inexperienced athletes to have to deal with. Especially for Abas Suan, the charismatic captain and town hero who gets booed because of his Arab heritage while playing for the national team in Jerusalem against Croatia. As does Bnei Sakhnin’s Jewish coach by the team’s overwhelmingly Muslim fans, who blame him for the losing streak it eventually succumbs to. By the time Suan and the national team face Ireland in the World Cup qualifier (and the Irish score a goal courtesy of a black guy who looks about as Irish as the foreigners on Bnei Sasknin look Middle Eastern), the irony has reached international levels. After all, what does national identity even mean in this globally connected world?
Unfortunately, centuries-old rivalries die hard—and the very thing that unites can also divide. The same fan that calls soccer a “disease” and victory “an orgy” confesses that he won’t leave his house for three days after a loss for fear of what he might do to someone who insults Bnei Sakhnin. The coach incites media controversy for the team’s aggressive style of play, responding to it with “sometimes the way is more important than the result.” As the team president explains, “it was not as big of a change as we expected” after the Cup win, but progress and change come slowly. “We will continue with our way to search for the real peace,” he adds even as he later acknowledges, “he who does not get scared does not scare anyone.” In the paradoxical Holy Land the fuse is always short and one goal away from being lit.