A Saudi remake of a bubble-gum Spanish sports comedy about a team of footballers with learning disabilities was probably never going to trouble the Oscars, just as its Spanish predecessor, Campeones, didn’t when it came out in 2018. But with that elephant out of the room, it’s worth looking at what Champions, which is definitely not Citizen Kane, does do.
The Middle East rarely tackles the subject of disability in popular narrative, and Champions has, like a champion, brought actors from one section of society straight to the fore, ably assisted by The Voice host Yassir Al Saggaf, who also voiced Sohaib in Bilal for ardent fans of Gulf-produced cinema.
The film tells the story of Khaled, a somewhat arrogant and far from politically correct assistant football coach who, after physically assaulting his boss on the touchline of a vital Saudi Premier League game, is punished by being sent to coach the team of a local facility for people with learning disabilities.
Khaled is painted in an even darker light when he turns on his fiance after discovering her brother has Down Syndrome, and considers calling off the marriage owing to his own fears of what this could mean for their future children.
It’s a fairly silly and Disney-fied confection that would be dismissed out of hand by anyone who was actually reviewing Champions as a film, and to be honest it’s pretty terrible as a film. All wooden acting, predictable script and jokes that feel too awkward around a difficult subject to actually land the punchline. But it has a strong message.
Actors with learning disabilities take many of the key roles, and Khaled gradually learns the folly of his negative attitude towards those different to him. His team progress to a huge football final in Dubai where they learn that it’s not the winning that counts, but it’s the taking part in the competition.
Champions is not big, it’s not clever, and it’s definitely nothing new. Unless you’re from Saudi Arabia, in which case not only are films really rather new, but so is that kind of honest approach to a previously taboo subject.
As a film, there are far better alternatives at the cinema, such as The Batman. However, as a cultural artefact Champions holds a place far above its cinematic merit.
Champions is in UAE cinemas from March 10