Zidane and the Art of Soccer


Soccer crowds like to throw fireworks and get into knife-fights. When they’re not killing each other on purpose, they’re killing each other accidentally. Ask any Liverpudlian what “Hillsborough” means, and he will recount the 1989 match in Sheffield when 96 fans were killed in a stampede. So there may have been cause for alarm last week when several hundred New Yorkers crowded shoulder-to-shoulder to watch a soccer game. But this was no horde of drunken hooligans in the stadium terraces; it was an artsy mob at the MoMA. The game, Real Madrid v. Villareal, had been recast as “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait,” an avant-garde film which follows midfielder Zinédine Zidane –- and only Zidane — through an entire match.

The museum’s senior curator of film, Laurence Kardish, looked flustered. His tie hung loosely below his unbuttoned collar. “It seems that we have a number of people standing,” he said. “Does anyone have an empty seat next to them?” Some people pointed, but no seats were found.

“Can we sit on the rail?” someone shouted from the back.

Kardish paused. Perhaps he was thinking of the Bolton match in 1946 when a wall collapsed and thirty-three spectators died. “No, you can’t sit on the rail. It’s a fire hazard.”

One of the film’s directors Douglas Gordon asked, “Can people who really love each other sit together in the same seat?” No one stirred.

The crowd, perhaps drawn by Gordon who shows at Gagosian Gallery, was more Chelsea NY than Chelsea FC. Cashmere sweaters outnumbered Ultra scarves, 150-0, and the theater was packed with young women, designer trench coats, and rectangular spectacles. A spectator beside me in white jeans and black thigh-high boots said to her date, either about Zidane or someone else, “He was gay before he got married, but then he fell in love with her.” Another audience member in a white ribbed turtle-neck announced her allegiances. “I’ve watched soccer games before,” she told her two friends, “and I’ve loved them!”

It was the first public American screening of the film, which was shot with 17 Zidane-centric cameras in 2005. If the museum-goers were more intrigued by art than sport, they may have been satisfied. Watching only Zidane made it impossible to tell what was going on in the match. It turned the sporting event into a meditative character study. Zizou (as Zidane is affectionately known) is the most elegant athlete I’ve ever seen. He moves in a way that seems both supernatural – his knee sliding this direction, his shoulder that — and entirely economical. But for most of this remarkable 92-minute film, he doesn’t do much. He just walks around with a scowl on his face. He is an angry man, alienated, alone.

Zidane, now famous for his career-ending headbutt, has always been a haunted soul. When he returned to the French team a few years ago after a brief retirement, he did so because a voice woke him in the middle of the night. It was widely speculated that he was listening to spirits. The film’s occasional subtitles, plucked from interviews, tell us that Zidane was mesmerized as a child by the voice of a French soccer commentator. He would sit very close to the screen, listening to the cadence, not the words. While playing, Zidane sometimes hears the tiniest sounds: the ticking of a watch, one fan whispering to another. Sometimes he hears nothing. Throughout the film, he barely recognizes other players. He seems to be in a trance.

The movie reproduces this state in the audience by oscillating between the loud roar of the crowd, onfield chatter, atmospheric music, and complete silence. We see close-ups on Zidane’s feet as he drags his toes obsessively along the turf, then we switch to pixilated TV images in which his body blends into the green of the pitch, then back to clear shots of his face. Zidane sweats and stares intensely. It’s hard to tell what he’s looking at.

More than an hour into the film, we see the ball hit Zizou’s feet. The camera is tight on his lower body as he bursts up the left sideline. Two defenders pop into the frame. Zidane steps over the ball, and they are left behind. Then, another defender slides into Zidane’s legs, but he lifts the ball over the prone body — we don’t know how — and it flies upward. We follow the sphere through the air, and over the goalkeeper, until a teammate heads it into the net. After all that solitary walking, a moment of synchronized brilliance! In the packed theater, a few fans gasped. One almost leapt from his seat, but he controlled himself. There were no high-fives. “Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all,” a subtitle read. “Nothing at all.” Zizou didn’t crack a smile.

After the movie, the directors, Philippe Parreno, a Frenchman, and Gordon, who is Scottish, discussed their passion for sport (They conceived the project while juggling a ball). “Most of the crew were not interested in football,” Gordon lamented. “They were into art, whatever that means.” I wondered what that meant. In order to be interested in soccer, it seemed, one must watch nothing happen for ninety minutes. Art fans, on the other hand, must watch ninety minutes, unsure if anything is happening. Then I thought back to the end of the movie when a fight broke out between the teams. We don’t see it develop. We watch Zidane standing far from the incident. We hear a ruckus, and Zizou runs across the field. The camera pulls back as he throws himself into the melee. The next thing we know, the referee holds a red card, and Zidane walks off the pitch. It is utterly baffling, but it’s a fitting conclusion to the film. Our lonely hero hears strange voices, stands around brooding, then succumbs to self-destructive impulses. If he were a Danish prince, it might be art. As it is, it’s soccer.

Soon after, the crowd left the MoMA in an orderly fashion.

Austin, I believe they did a similar movie about another tortured sole: George Best. Any insight?

EJ Murphy    Nov 20, 11:53 AM    #

By the way, after I sent the previous comment, I realized that I had spelled soul – sole. Please excuse my reliance on spell check.

EJ Murphy    Nov 20, 05:05 PM    #

EJ, I hadn’t heard about the George Best film, but you’re right. It was made in 1970. Here’s some info. I’d love to see it if anyone knows how to get a copy.

Austin    Nov 20, 08:24 PM    #

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