Football as Before

Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait. From screen.oxfordjournals.org.
  • Phillipe Parreno. CCS Bard Gallery, Annandale-on-Hudson. June 26–September 26, 2010.

This piece first appeared at Paper Monument

Zinadine Zidane: If you want my shirt so badly, I’ll give it to you after the game.
Marco Materazzi: I’d prefer your sister’s.

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. Although his chiseled body and strong personality were both impressively larger than life on the silver screen—you could study his scowl, his famous hairline, his quicksilver feet—the attributes that mattered to his soccer were conspicuous only by their absence. The obvious fact was you couldn’t see what he saw. Teammates shifting back and forth, the ill-fated positioning of an opposing defender, the split-second gap—all this happened off screen. The intricate angles, uncanny foresight, and precision timing that comprise the advanced calculus of the killer pass—these were nowhere to be found. Zidane’s commanding intelligence was thereby excluded, supplanted by huge beads of sweat, white socks, eyebrows.

If the filmmakers replaced Zidane’s vision with their own, it wouldn’t be the first time a portrait managed merely to objectify its subject. Oddly enough, it wasn’t even a debut for this particular method. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was actually a rehash of Helmuth Costard’s Football as Never Before (1971), which featured the famously attractive George Best as the sole focus of eight 16mm cameras as his Manchester United beat Coventry 2-0 on September 12, 1970. Gordon and Parenno added a few more (and more advanced) cameras, and they added a post-rock band, but the idea sits firmly in the 20th century.

Which raises the question: Just what makes this a 21st century portrait? Taking the title lightly, Gordon & Parreno simply made a timely remake, one they obviously couldn’t have called Football as Before. Technologically speaking, we did get much improved resolution; historically, the movie provides a unique record of the most important player from the turn of the millennium. Aesthetically, the question is trickier. That it reprises an innovation from the last century seems both typical of our era and somewhat disappointing, but the fact that the film’s structure works to exclude its own content seems even more representative of our time. Repeating Costard’s invention and leaving out Zidane’s, this beautiful film ends up seeming both opportunistic and a missed opportunity. Strangely, it is the sporting perspective—which at first seemed tangential, or even distracting—that offers us this modest insight. How long will we wait until they put the camera on the player and let him do the filming?

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