Close to Nothing: Dissecting “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait”

* The following piece was originally published on, my old blog that has been creepily consumed by outsourced writers that post vacuous sentences of soccer buzzwords. It was published in Spring of 2008.

“Sometimes magic is very close to nothing at all. Nothing at all.”

-Zinedine Zidane

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait immediately calls attention to the difference between experiencing a soccer game on television and the unique experience the viewer gets with this film – intense and personal. The film cuts from a regular televised broadcast of the game, the screen pixilated and fuzzy, to a crisp shot of Zidane tearing along at full speed; from muted crowd sounds, buried beneath the commentator’s voice, to the chilling roar of the thousands of fans at the Bernabeau in Madrid; from small players in the distance to sweat dripping down Zidane’s chiseled face.

He is the specimen under a microscope, or, in this case, under the gaze of seventeen cameras that look more like rocket launchers (seen in the worthwhile “Making of the DVD” section), with military-grade zoom capabilities and lenses the size of small pizzas. We get as close as humanly possible to the player’s individual experience. We enter his space, insulated – but still affected – from all that surrounds him.

In doing so we don’t get the contextual information that naturally accompanies a game on television. We don’t know who Zidane passes to, or where, or why. We lose the typical measuring devices that we rely on when watching soccer. It is hard to read the flow of the game, or gauge the momentum of each team. We don’t have a narrator providing a story line or imposing significance on events. We don’t have a clock ticking in the upper left hand corner of the screen or ball-possession statistics confirming our suspicions about the game flow. We need to read the game through Zidane’s movements: his actions, his body language, and his expressions. Zidane is the protagonist. This is what lets us in. We begin, just barely, to experience aspects of the game that he does, while he does.

Without context, we get an unfamiliar but personal sense of time and place. The soundtrack of the film, for example, approximates how Zidane, or possibly any player, hears things throughout a game. The sounds build and fall in layers, isolating noises from the crowd and then the yells and grunts from other players on the pitch. In this hyper-sensitive world even the most subtle sounds receive attention. At one point we get only the gentle scuffs of Zidane’s boots along the turf.

“You can almost decide for yourself what you want to hear,” Zidane says, in a caption that flashes at the bottom of the screen. He describes how he can hear coughing, or “someone shifting around in their chair,” or a whisper in the crowd culled through all the noise.

The effect of this shifting sonic landscape is both real, in the way it captures Zidane’s experience, and also dreamlike, in the way sounds impossibly uncover themselves, as if a giant stethoscope hovers over different areas of the field. The hypnotic music of the Scottish group Mogwai, which slowly replaces the sounds of the game at different points of the movie, adds to this limbo between dream and reality. The music carries us along, mesmerizing us with the rhythms of the game, at the same time it pushes us to heighten our awareness of what we see. Details become unreal.

While the film purposely limits contextual information, it also serves to place Zidane in a time and place better than any footage or written description has ever done before. It gives us a detailed and thorough record of the man at work, doing what he was meant to do week in and week out, in an environment that is more natural to him than any. By letting us in, the film gives a weight to Zidane’s work, or even that of any modern athlete, which forces us to feel and think about his vocation in a more human and real way. The film therefore doesn’t add to Zidane’s legend, his larger than life magnetism, as much as it tears it down.

Not only do we see what is unique about Zidane as a player, but we see what is unique about him as a man. Under the microscope, his attitude bores through the frame. He scars the screen with the grave concentration he levies into everything. He plays with a “coiled intensity,” as Peter Bradshaw writes in his review of the film in The Guardian. Even at his most relaxed and stagnant, Zidane’s intensity boils through his skin, threatening to explode at any moment.

He is a warrior from another era. We see it in his actions, and even his words. After Villareal scores the first goal of the match, on a questionable penalty call, Zidane comes back to his side and stares through the referee with piercing eyes. He says only, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Then play resumes.

As my good friend put it: “It harkens back to a day when things like shame and honor meant something.”

He was half kidding. But these things are important to Zidane. He demands performance. He gives Roberto Carlos a quick, “Come on,” after Carlos looses the ball. And after Zidane makes a dazzling run down the left wing, producing the assist for the equalizing goal, he doesn’t even crack a look of satisfaction. He grunts, and he returns to his half. When he gets the red card in the game’s dying minutes, for tearing fists-first into a Villareal player, we don’t know what happened, but we are sure that the offending player has somehow offended Zidane’s honor.

Our viewpoint also allows us to get a unique sense of Zidane’s efficiency in his movements and touches. We don’t need to see the context of all Zidane’s passes and moves to know how he plays on this night. He plays fucking brilliantly, as usual. He kills balls on his chest, his thighs, his feet, then knocks them on to relieve pressure. He almost never loses possession, even after dozens of touches. He appears more at ease when he actually gets the ball, as if he knows the precious object is safe under his control. He spends so much time calling for it, showing for it, chasing it, that when he gets it he is grateful, comforted. He shuffles effortlessly around opponents, the ball glued to his feet.

We see Zidane as a specimen built to play the game. He romps around his natural environment like a wild steed around a meadow. In between action he spits, or he toes the earth. He snarls. These natural habits serve as tiny, but revealing, outlets of his pent up energy.

The film provides a number of still shots that recall elements of a Western, or even a Nature film. We see Zidane as a man, or beast, alone. He is both at home and at war with his environment. We see him in the twilight of his career, trying to make the most out of his abilities and his rusting joints. The field and the game become the things that give him purpose—sustaining his powers—while they also wear him down. In this way, as much as Zidane astounds as a specimen of strength, he also appears in a uniquely fragile light. We see the urgency in everything he does, expending strength and effort over and over to no result.

These are the details that allow the film to deliver heavy truths about the modern athlete that no other media outlet could. Up close, we see that despite Zidane’s ferocity, or maybe because of it, his life on the field seems impermanent and endangered. We become more aware that this life will come to a close after ninety minutes on this night, and then forever after just a few more years, in his early thirties. In experiencing more deeply the intensity of an athlete’s job, we also realize how short and temporary it really is. Zidane plays against all forms of time, not just the time in the game, but his time doing what he was irrevocably meant, and impeccably trained, to do.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait serves as a way to record, and preserve, Zidane’s existence. As filmmakers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno comment in the “Making of Film” piece on the DVD, the finished product works as something much more permanent and significant than the highlight reels and stock images that will survive Zidane’s retirement. It ensures that the end of Zidane’s career will be remembered for more than just a head butt to the chest of a trash-talking Italian.

The filmmakers do their best to give this particular game, played on Sunday, April 23rd, 2005, a dilating context that it couldn’t get from any typical media coverage. During half time, images of Zidane are replaced by a potpourri of images of world events that happened on the same day. Some are newsworthy, like a report about lethal floods in Serbia and Montenegro. Some aren’t, like toads “swelling to three times their size” in some pond in Germany. Death happens. Birth happens. Inconsequence happens. Gordon and Parreno may have stretched themselves in trying to couch Zidane’s one performance in such epic scope. But they make the point quickly and emphatically. After this brief detour around “world events” the picture cuts back to the game – the magnetic appeal it has to so many thousands of fans at the Bernabeau and so many millions the world over. Then it cuts to Zidane, breathing. And again, we watch.

This technique reveals a paradox of soccer and one player’s place within such a massive attraction. For everyone tuned in, the game holds an immense significance. But, in shifting frames from the extremely wide to the extremely close, we also see the game as something as meaningless as one man’s workday, or, like a repeated caption suggests, “a walk in the park.” If we tweak our perspective, we can see the sport as the silly and tireless pursuit of an illusive ball. The game Zidane plays in is as significant or insignificant as anything else to occur on this day. Its’ meaning depends on our focus.

Soccer might go on forever, gathering momentum as the earth turns. But Zidane, like a dream we had that can never be fully recovered, won’t. This film captures crucial elements of that dream. It holds both a lightness and weight that everyone can experience in a different way. It captures Zidane at a moment that is both timeless and infinitely temporary, in moments that are dazzling and also ordinary, with a momentum that is effortless but also arduous.

As Christopher Clarey writes in his Herald Tribune review, “When Zidane makes something out of nothing down the left wing in the first half, avoiding a thicket of extended legs to get a cross to Ronaldo for a headed goal, there is more hard labor than magic dust in it.” In using a focus that flows between the peripheral, the detailed, and the hyper-detailed, the film dilates in a way that tunes us to frequencies of the game that we didn’t know existed. We can’t help but question and examine the thinnest differences between work and play, between the qualities we worship and those we neglect, and, as Zidane suggests as the camera pans above the stadium into the night sky, between magic and nothing.

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