Football as Before

Image Dushko Petrovich in n+1:

Before he became famous for headbutting, Zinadine Zidane was actually known for his composure. At Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid, his hallmarks as a midfielder were Spartan efficiency of movement, incisive passing, and magnetic control of the ball in tight circumstances. Unlike Pele or Maradona (the greats who came before him) and Chrisiano Ronaldo (probably the most outstanding player since), Zidane wasn’t particularly flashy. When France won the ’98 World Cup, he didn’t even score until the final, against Brazil, when he converted two corner kicks with unfussy, short-range headers to make it 2-0 by halftime. He was known to complete the occasional 360-degree turn, and he did have some smart footwork, but overall, he was more metronome than drum solo. His way of controlling the game was to control—and then suddenly change—the tempo.

In this sense, the real-time structure of Phillipe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s 2006 movie, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, was somewhat suited to the Frenchman. With the ninety-minute montage (assembled from seventeen cameras placed around the 80,000-person capacity Santiago Bernabeu stadium) focusing entirely on Zidane, even soccer aficionados suffered through spells of cinematic stasis that exceeded the sport’s native tedium. Interrupted only by a few clips from the original TV broadcast, and occasionally augmented by the pleasing Mogwai soundtrack, the iconic image of Zidane himself—sometimes grunting, sometimes sprinting, but mainly just jogging and looking around—was meant to sustain viewers for the full hour and a half.

Usually citing the cool music, or Zidane’s gladiatorial good looks, people uninterested in soccer have often told me the movie exceeded their expectations. For die-hard fans, on the other hand, the film was something of a disappointment. It was hard to put your finger on, but something was missing. It wasn’t only the lack of suspense that came from knowing that Real Madrid would beat Villareal—many of us happily watch taped replays, tributes to past legends, countless YouTube clips. And it wasn’t exactly that we couldn’t see the other players—in fact, David Beckham and Juan Carlos both had entertaining cameos, coaxing laughter from the otherwise stoical Zidane. And there was no lack of sporting drama: Zidane chipped the ball to Ronaldo for a crucial goal, and curiously, in the closing minutes of the April 23, 2005 match Gordon and Parreno happened to record, the leading man was sent off for brawling.

But even before the portentous red card, Zidane’s essence as a player was omitted from the film.