FEATURES INTERVIEWS

ELI MENGEM: THE MAN BEHIND COPA90’S FOOTBALL FILM SERIES

Talking to COPA90's Eli Mengem on all things related to football rivalries, international football and more.

COPA90 are the face of the new-world football media. It’s an undeniable fact, given the reach and impact they’ve had in recent years. By pivoting to video as a form of effective football coverage, they have broken the barrier between football, the people that make the beautiful game, and the fans watching at home from all around the world. And for those not fortunate enough to watch their favourite team (hipster or otherwise) live at the ground, the excellent people at COPA90 bring the passion, the energy, and the madness all to your screen.

The chemistry between Poet and David Vujanic is well transmitted in FIFA and Chill videos, allowing footballers to be more open, frank and humorous in their interviews. In the process, they’ve not only shattered the hesitancy that players have when engaging with the media, but allowed them to be themselves.

That’s just one side of the niche, however. The other face of COPA90 is the host of arguably the best football docu-series on YouTube. Derby Days, hosted by the inimitable Eli Mengem, is all one can ask for: on the ground coverage of the world’s most passionate rivalries.

Watching a derby on the TV is one thing, but Eli and his team document everything else: the history, the build-up, the live reactions, interviews with the fans. It’s authentic culture, keeps you on the edge, and fully for the people.

Given Eli’s introduction to the game, it’s no surprise that the series he presents is in his image. “I fell in love with football in Australia thanks to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan. It was my first proper exposure to international football thanks to the matches airing at family-friendly times thanks to Australia’s proximity to the host countries,” expresses Eli. “The colour and spectacle of the tournament blew my mind and opened my world and from there I was hooked on absolutely everything about the game but in particular, the culture, stories, and popularity off the pitch.”

Watching Eli present every episode of Derby Days, it’s clear he’s the perfect man for the job. However, this wasn’t supposed to be the case as he was not the planned person for the role.

“The idea for Derby Days was actually being discussed at COPA90 before I was even working there. I first heard about it and tried to get involved on one of my first days after I won the job to host the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil but they told me they already had a different presenter lined up to do the show,” explained Eli. “Strategically, I spent the next five weeks constantly discussing and making clear my passion and knowledge for club rivalries. When they realised I probably knew more about derbies than anyone else, they gave me the chance to host the show and eventually (from Madrid onwards) the opportunity to direct and produce Derby Days as well.”

For those that have tracked Derby Days from the start, the progress and development would be stark. From Australia to Austria, Spain to Serbia, and everything in between, the quality has constantly risen. It all culminated in their most recent offering: Derby Days Superclásico.

It was a match-up made in heaven, the biggest rivalry in the world in the Copa Libertadores final, over two legs. Eli had been waiting for the perfect occasion to cover this behemoth of a fixture, and he got it, albeit in vastly different circumstances.

Given the off-field violence that tainted the eventual football, the episode was set to be elevated to the next level. The first thought after reading up on the violence was exactly that: the Derby Days episode is going to be incredible. That the length was around double their usual video length, at 55:39 minutes, summed up the challenge at hand.

“THE SUPERCLÁSICO EPISODE WAS, WITHOUT DOUBT, THE MOST DIFFICULT EPISODE WE HAVE EVER MADE”

But the end product was phenomenal: sublimely put, with a wide array of insight and incredible live footage as things went down, and stunning videography. The good, the bad and the ugly, all put together in one film. Capturing the drama eloquently and with balance required skill.  More importantly though, was the effort put in by the crew.

“The Superclásico episode was, without doubt, the most difficult episode we have ever made. Whilst we took the biggest crew and had the biggest ever budget to work with, to do the rivalry justice the episode had to be on a level we had never attempted before, which required a work rate that really took it out of us. By the end, I think there were 30 interviews conducted (including one three-hour master), four terabytes of footage and thousands of pages of research,” revealed Eli.

“COPA90 were generous enough to allow us to be in Buenos Aires for the entire three weeks of the two legged series but that meant we had to have the episode ready 48 hours after the second leg. However, with all the moving parts including three cancelled matchdays, we realised with each passing day how hard that would actually be to execute. Despite working 15 to 18 hour shifts each day of the final week, when the River Plate home leg was cancelled for the second time we knew there was no hope of meeting the deadline.”

“Luckily, when the second leg was indefinitely suspended, we were able to move the deadline until after the match was rescheduled, but even then, with the amount of footage we captured and with how much depth there is to the history of the rivalry, 100 hour weeks were still required back in the edit suite even after we returned to London.”

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THE HOSTILE ATMOSPHERE AND CONSTANT RESCHEDULING MADE THE COPA LIBERTADORES FINAL A DIFFICULT EPISODE TO PRODUCE

It was the type of game where you’d fear for your personal safety, especially given their conspicuousness with cameras. That’s a running theme amongst most of their episodes, wherein the violence can hit unnerving levels. It’s a credit then, to Eli and his team, that they are able to hold their nerve as much as possible.

“There have been too many moments to pinpoint ‘the scariest moment’. The entire day in Rome was extremely nerve-wracking. There was Serbia when I forgot to remove my microphone pack before entering to sit with the fans, which was only realised thanks to a police pat down who told us in no uncertain terms that had I taken it in, my life would have been in danger as I looked like an undercover policeman. There was Hamburg, where the night before the derby (the first to be played in seven years), I was spotted by some ultras and pulled out of a restaurant and told we had twenty minutes to get out of the neighbourhood. And yes, in Buenos Aires, where after the River home leg was cancelled the first time, we were caught in a stampede (and then a follow up stampede) that was somehow never captured by any cameras but was truly one of the scariest moments of my career.”

“IT’S THE PUREST FORMAT OF THE GAME”

There’s more to Eli’s football passion than just derbies, though. On his Twitter account, he’s constantly expressed his joy and love for international football, whether it be the World Cup, qualifiers or just football stories that need to be told. While many hold disdain, preferring ‘superior’ club football, Eli fights back against that notion. His reasoning fits in with his appreciation of the culture behind the game.

“I think the reason I feel so strongly about international football is that at its core, it’s the purist’s format of the game. Yes, there are odd exceptions but in the vast majority of circumstances, the teams are comprised of players who were born, raised and grew up in the place and amongst the culture that the shirt represents. I think this changes the whole dynamic in comparison to club football as the players truly understood what the shirt and fans stand for and the motivation is for something far more than financial or career driven,” said Eli.

“You can’t buy a better team, a player can’t hand in a transfer request, and the team is only as good as what the population has produced (with the odd exception of players selected from lineage). I also love the fact that it truly is so universal and that with a tournament as incredible as the World Cup, unlike club leagues, every single nation and hence every single person has a chance at taking part and being represented in the tournament. The World Cup doesn’t start when the final tournament kicks off, but starts three years prior when two Caribbean nations or two South East Asian minnows kick off qualifying in the knowledge that what they’re playing for is the same thing as France, Brazil or Argentina.”

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ELI MENGEM HAS BEEN VOCAL ABOUT HIS SUPPORT FOR INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL

Essentially, Eli Mengem is the embodiment of football. Or at least, he’s the version that is in it for the humanity of the game: the passion, the emotion, the highs and the lows. It’s a refreshing change to the current status quo, where money talks in football and tribalism, at least on social media, rules. There are always stories to tell, and football is just a medium. That’s the reason Derby Days has done so well: it’s organic, original content that you simply cannot find anywhere else. It’s simultaneously exhilarating and educational.

“The thing about football is the adventures and experiences you can have are truly limitless, so no matter how many films I have already made around the world, there is always something else I want to tick off the list. For me, I really have an affinity with South America and feel there is so much more to show off and celebrate from the continent’s clubs and national teams.”

“I also feel like Asia is in need of more exposure especially with the rise of China, Japan’s reinvestment in the league and the wonders of supporter culture in South East Asia. But back in Europe, there are still so many countries who have wildly diverse regions and people that are begging to have their stories and identities explained and celebrated through our films.”

“There are no concrete plans for Derby Days at the moment, but it will make a comeback soon. I can’t confirm where and when, but the plan is for a ‘themed’ series like we did with Spain. I’ve had my eyes set on a South American series for some time, however, Asia is another possibility. We will just have to wait and see.”

Eli may keep his cards close to his chest, but one thing is certain. Quality is the guarantee of a series good enough for television. Derby Days will continue to enthrall, leaving us in awe of the effort that goes behind the video. “You can’t negotiate passion,” remarked Eli in the Superclásico episode. You most definitely can’t. The gold standard has been set in the sky.

BY RAHUL WARRIER