A look back at ‘Zidane : A 21st Century Portrait’

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“Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait,” originally released in May 2006,  is a pretty remarkable piece of film making.

If your staple diet of all things cinematic comes via the crash and bang of the multiplex, then the stately pace, the incremental placing of barely changing layer upon layer as the film crawls by is going to take some adapting to.

But it’s worth the effort. If this were an album by Coltrane, it would have been termed “A Meditation”, and maybe that’s the best way to think about it. It’s a Zen thing, gradually building in significance to build a portrait that’s compelling, that has real depth, yet never pretends to unveil the man behind the implacable mask, the heavy set brows, the piercing stare. It could only be a French movie, about a French icon and Vive Le Différence because as one critic put it at the time, this might just be the greatest film about football ever made.

The premise is that the camera follows Zidane about the pitch throughout a single game in La Liga, back in 2005. It doesn’t follow the game, it follows Zidane, so in that sense, it’s very much like being a scout sent along to compile a report on an individual and for a fan, that in itself is intriguing. But this isn’t a study of a promising 17 year old at Brechin City that might cost you £25,000. This is the man who was probably the greatest player in the world from 1998 to 2006, the man who would cost you untold millions, if you could have got him away from the Galácticos.

That prospect in itself seems thrilling enough to me. I remember really becoming aware, fascinated, absorbed by Zidane at the ’98 World Cup. In game after game, time after time, he played the right pass, be it easy or complex. When you watch on TV or from high in the stands, with the glorious sweep of a view, all the options are before you and it’s easy to see what the best option is. On the field, amid the noise, the bodies, the confusion, it’s a very different task. But Zidane’s selection of pass was extraordinary, at a higher level than any footballer I’d ever seen, way up there in the 90s.

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To see that at close quarters a rare treat, yet initially, it’s a disappointment, partly because you get sucked into the technicalities. As a British fan, it seems unimaginable that such a great player is given so much space, that he isn’t man marked into the ground. And, again as a British fan, it seems incomprehensible that the man barely moves. There’s no running into space, certainly no tracking back, just a vague hanging around like a bloke at a bus terminal who isn’t quite sure which service it is that he needs. There are a lot of close ups, plenty of shots of him looking vaguely disappointed with what’s going on around him, but no fire, precious little brimstone. The most incendiary moment comes when Madrid concede a controversial penalty and, after it’s successfully converted and the teams are lining up again, Zidane says quietly to the ref, “You should be ashamed”.

The languid pace, soundtracked superbly by Mogwai – that rare event where the soundtrack album is worth getting on its own merits – continues to the interval where a world of other events from that day in April 2005 is catalogued, taking us to a bomb blast in Iraq where stood on the periphery is a young boy in a Real Madrid shirt with 5 – Zidane on the back. The global game indeed.

A goal behind, any side in this country would come out all guns blazing, but not Real, the tempo barely shifts and an hour in, the filmmakers must have been rather concerned about whether or not they’d picked a dud. Zidane continues to slouch about the field, but suddenly, the pace makes sense. You come to recognise the mannerisms, you understand that he is on edge. That strange scratching motion as he walks, dragging the front of his foot on the turf like a barnyard chicken, shuffling, scuffling.

And then, the punchline. A ball finds him on the left. A lovely moment of control, a little change of pace, lightning feet and he’s beyond three defenders and, trusting the left foot he rarely uses except in extremis, he curls a cross to the back post where Ronaldo has a tap-in header to equalise.

From there, he’s not galvanised. He’s magnetised. The ball won’t stop finding him and his use of it is immaculate. A moment where he kills it stone dead and turns is like watching Canute turning the tide back, the geometrics of it are impossible but captivating. This is a man who sees the game in high definition slow motion as it rages around him, somebody with an analytical brain that creates 3D computer models from a bird’s eye view, allowing him to select the right option time and again. Now it’s payback on the slow build up. Gone is the shambling walk, the uncertainty. Now the stride is purposeful, confident, the game in his hands, his head, his feet. He played no part in the second goal, if he’d covered more than a couple of kilometres in the whole game it would be a shock, but Zidane won it.

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Finally, the luck of the moviemaker, who got the right day after all. Madrid almost concede an equaliser from a corner late on, Zidane and Roberto Carlos walking away from it, laughing and joking, knowing they’ve escaped, the game’s won. Those smiles are genuine, the camaraderie heartfelt, and in that instant, you see why players never want to hang up their boots. Then, the rage that bubbles beneath the surface. A bad tackle on a colleague and Zidane is sprinting faster than at any time in the game, pushing and pulling, collecting the red card that gives the film its finale, a finale that, in the light of the World Cup Final that followed a year later, somehow encapsulates the magician that was Zizou.

As the man himself says, via subtitles during the action, “Sometimes magic is close to nothing at all. Nothing at all”.

©Nigel Molesworth for @awaycolours 2014

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