:: Article

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

By Juliet Jacques.

In October 2006, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was released in cinemas across Britain. Co-directed by artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno and scored by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, the film used seventeen cameras to track French midfielder Zinédine Zidane through a league match between Real Madrid and Villarreal at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium on 23 April 2005, and was presented as a unique combination of football, music and art.

A few months earlier, Zidane had left football in the most spectacular fashion. Aged 34 and regarded as the best player of his generation, having won the World Cup and the European Championship with France and the Champions League with Real Madrid, he announced that he would retire after the 2006 World Cup. After struggling through the group stage, France beat highly fancied Spain 3-1 in the second round, when he scored one and set up another, and then knocked out the holders, Brazil – Zidane created the only goal and delivered one of the greatest individual performances in the tournament’s history. He scored a penalty as France beat Portugal 1-0 in the semi-final, meaning that the Final would be his last match.

Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint was at the game and later wrote a speculative essay, ‘Zidane’s Melancholy,’ about why Zidane ended his career by head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi with ten minutes remaining. Zidane had opened the scoring with an impudent penalty after seven minutes, chipping the ball into the goal like Czech midfielder Antonín Panenka in the 1976 European Championship Final, before Materazzi equalised.

With no further score, the match went into extra time, when Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon made an incredible save from Zidane’s header, tipping the ball over the crossbar. Here, wrote Toussaint, Zidane realised that he no longer had ‘the means, or the strength, the energy, the will, to pull off … a final act of pure form’ and resolved to short-circuit his exit, resisting the symbolic death of lifting the World Cup and leaving ‘prospects open, unknown, alive’ with a gesture that would ‘score minds’. Soon afterwards, away from the ball and the eyes of the spectators, Zidane clashed with Materazzi and was sent off, walking past the World Cup on his way out of the game.

As a playmaker of phenomenal vision, Zidane had an unusual appeal for artists. His act of retaliatory violence heightened it, remaining enigmatic as neither he nor Materazzi provided a satisfactory explanation, and propelled Gordon and Parreno’s work out of its intended gallery context and into cinemas. Gordon, a Turner Prize winner in 1996, was fascinated with ways of playing with time on video, most famously in 24-Hour Psycho (1993), which slowed down Hitchcock’s film so that it lasted a day. Parreno was interested in the idea of the exhibition as a medium, with shows having a scripted starting-point from which limitless narratives could emerge, and Zidane was able to combine both of their concerns.

The many conflicts played out in each match – between and within teams, managers, players – and their unpredictable outcomes are what make football so captivating, and A 21st Century Portrait such a risk. Gordon and Parreno had wanted to work with Zidane since 1995, when he starred in Bordeaux’s run to the UEFA Cup Final as one of Europe’s most promising young players. Persuaded to participate as he didn’t have to “play a role”, Zidane wanted to film several games, but Gordon and Parreno insisted on just one: the possibility of him playing badly, being injured or sent off, or the match being dull, became integral to the finished product.

Zidane wasn’t unprecedented: in September 1970, German director Hellmuth Costand took eight cameras to a First Division match between Manchester United and Coventry City to follow George Best, in Football as Never Before. Parreno didn’t like Costand’s film, describing it as “really bad art” and cited Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests and Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1964) as his main inspirations; although Football as Never Before also used tracking shots, crowd noise and music, what it lacked was any sense of Best’s psychology, how he felt during games or about his profession, or any wider context.

When Costand’s film was made, football was rarely televised, with its formal conventions of its screening still being set, and beyond focusing on Best, Football as Never Before did little to challenge them. By 2005, television viewers could see several matches a week, and Zidane draws much of its power and beauty from its reaction against the established long shots that brought team formations and player movements into view, narrated by a commentator and an (often superfluous) co-commentator. Initially wanting to use a thousand cameras before settling on 17, Gordon and Parreno created a “portrait of an anti-hero”, the occasional shots of the packed stands, the commentary box or the referee only emphasising the sense of Zidane’s isolation within his team and before their supporters.

As Real Madrid’s creative fulcrum, Zidane frequently switched from spectatorship to activity, with Gordon and Parreno’s editing emphasising his natural changes of rhythm. There is a genuine thrill to seeing Zidane passing the ball or taking on defenders, and in watching his runs and the space he makes for Madrid’s galácticos, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, Raúl, David Beckham and Michael Owen. In this, and throughout the film, Zidane looks alone – never more so than when Villarreal’s Diego Forlán wins a penalty, which he disputes, and as he walks back the centre-circle as the roar of the crowd indicates that Madrid’s opponents have gone ahead.

Occasionally, Zidane’s thoughts would appear as subtitles. Hiding more than they reveal about his attitudes to being part of a team, the culture in which he existed or how much he enjoyed football, his enigmatic statements about running commentaries in his head or how he only remembered matches in fragments suited the film’s dream-like feel, especially when the soundtrack dissolved from stadium noise into Mogwai’s score. They featured twice, capturing some sense of the endless repetition of a footballer’s life, used either side of half-time.

Gordon and Parreno said that the interval was the first problem they considered, and the last one they resolved. Football as Never Before had a strange, extended close-up of Best’s face: they decided against doing similar, or following Zidane into the changing rooms, instead cutting to a montage of global news on the day of the match. This included Elian González, a child involved an asylum battle between the US and Cuba in 2000, appearing on Cuban television, the death of Sir John Mills and a car bomb in Iraq which killed nine people, with a picture of a boy running from the explosion in a Madrid shirt bearing Zidane’s name.

The film worked best when it kept close to its protagonist, who did not have his greatest game, but was far from anonymous. After sixty minutes, Zidane looks up at the scoreboard, seeing Real Madrid 0 Villarreal 1, and that strange sense of time passing quickly when your side are losing, familiar to any football fan, becomes all too clear. Then, Zidane gets the ball, beats several players and crosses: we do not see the outcome but hear the celebrations, before a replay shows that Ronaldo has headed past Villarreal goalkeeper José Manuel Reina to equalise.

Four minutes later, Míchel Salgado puts Madrid ahead, but Zidane’s response is muted: his expression barely changes throughout, the directors homing in on his first smile for several seconds shortly after Salgado’s winning goal. Finally, the soundtrack gets darker, becoming a mixture of crowd noise and ominous music as a melee starts around the Villarreal goal. Sent off twelve times in his career, Zidane rushes in and shoving Reina, with the red card he received looking like a portent of his dramatic World Cup Final exit. As Raúl claps him, Zidane slowly walks down the tunnel: his words ‘Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all’ flash up again, and A 21st Century Portrait ends after 85 minutes.

Gordon and Parreno said that their work had to feature Zidane, and the quality of the finished film justifies their dedication, but it’s hard not to wish for similar works devoted to a number of the game’s greats. How would projects featuring, for example, Ferenc Puskás, Garrincha, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi compare? With the exception of George Best, we’ll never know, but the boldness and verve of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait suggests that football and art could combine in new, fascinating ways in the future.

[This is a transcript of a speech given at The Rest is Noise, 7-8 December 2013]

Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer for The Guardian, The New Statesman and others, who writes about literature, film, art, gender and football. Her Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian – the first to serialise the gender reassignment process for a major British publication – was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 12th, 2013.