Thursday, 15 September 2011


Question: Do you see filmmakers lining up to make art house movies tracking Gareth Barry in hyperreal close-up through a full game and in real time? Or Lee Cattermole? No. Exactly. Of course you don’t. 

Famous as the eponymous hero of Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait, Zinedine Zidane was simply iconic, regal; a Le Pen-fucking time-and-space bender with undoubtedly football’s greatest ever tonsure / widow’s peak combination, hairlines that were more or less a brand (if any of the galácticos had the surname to carry off a luxury cologne, it wasn’t Leytonstone’s finest). That said, brand ‘ambassadors’ tend to be tabulae rasae: empty, neutral sites for the projection of whatever ‘values’ the corporation wishes the consumer to swallow (as opposed to spit). Zidane, however, was no vacuous billboard, his face no blank canvas; it was always supersaturated with meaning, but such meaning as was still somehow beguilingly inscrutable, hidden in plain sight behind a persona that we all thought we knew. 

For all the epochal highlights (and lowlights) of his CV – the Champions League-winning Glasgow swinger and that swansong Glasgow kiss; the World Cup-winning headed brace; the jeers of Algerian fans; the bum-squeaking penalties despatched with sang-froid (or warm vomitus) – the overall impression left by Zidane was less the result of details than a vague and almost impressionistic cine-reel flickering of the flourishes of a quite extraordinary stylist; so extraordinary, in fact, that I bet you don’t know anyone who has ever said “Zidane? Overrated,” or not exhaled in something like reverential awe at the merest mention of his name. 

With his narrow eyes and five o’clock shadow, head bowed and brow furrowed, Zidane always seemed to me like a character from a spaghetti western: brooding, taciturn (as is often the case with people whose primary mode of self-expression is non-verbal), intense, always compelling, getting the job done in a way that made the near-impossible seem workaday. This whole minimal maximalism was perhaps most readily discernible in the sparse economy (yet high yield) of his movement: languid and languorous, propelled by calves as supply sinewy as virgin bamboo, practically impossible to knock down, gobbling passes hit at all heights and speeds, a player whose sporadic yet deadly bursts of influence in a game demanded soundtracking by Ry Cooder slide guitar textures, à la Paris, Texas

Perhaps this image of a spaghetti western persona was understandable given that it was against the dusty backdrop of Marseille’s tough Le Castellane banlieue and its tenements that Zizou’s singularly graceful yet muscular style was formed. Certainly, his astonishing elastic-limbed control, pulling the ball from the air as does a chameleon a fly (whence ‘languid’ and ‘languorous’, words that ought to derive from the Latin for tongue), and mind-boggling range of nonchalant, two-footed, utterly deadweight passing – the two touchstones of his genius according to his most illustrious forebear in Les Bleus’ number 10 shirt, Platini – were honed over hours of ball-hogging among the Algerian ex-pats in the squares of those brutalist tower blocks. Zidane, simply, was the five-a-side player nonpareil, as a famous YouTube clip evidences. 

Having said all that, there is still that big-pitch, big-stage CV and its three World Footballer of the Year awards (a record equalled only by Brazil’s Ronaldo) to consider: four years of sorcery apprenticeship at both Cannes and Bordeaux, then five years running the fucking show for La Vecchia Signora, before becoming the second galáctico to join Florentino Perez’s circus at Real Madrid, flashes of Zizou genius illuminating an otherwise flabby and torpid period for the club (notwithstanding the madrileño Holy Grail of centenary year European Cup success) as a distinctly top-heavy dressing-room dynamic, leading indirectly to midfield lynchpin Claude Makelele’s departure, thereafter failed to steel itself for the long haul of a La Liga campaign. 

It was at international level, though, that this Berber’s son’s broad Atlas shoulders, magnetic feet, wiry strength and bird’s-eye vision truly prospered – a solid outing at Euro 96 preceding the romp past a zombified Brazil in the Stade de France; the magnificent, steel-nerved Golden Goal penalty in the 2000 European Championship semi-final; the injury-time dead ball execution of England in 2004; and the Player of the Tournament-winning tour de force that dragged a mediocre squad to the 2006 final (his penalties in semi- and final the only French goals), his last game as a professional, prematurely ended by his righteous, portcullis-smashing head-butt on Materazzi. 

And all of this scruff-of-the-neck-grabbing was done while twisting and bending and turning and pirouetting and roulette-ing and never losing either the ball or his uncanny sense of how to bring his camarades into the game, never asking them to do anything as vulgar as break stride. 

If football is the working man’s ballet, then Zidane was unquestionably its Nijinsky.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


In all likelihood, it escaped your attention, but in the 69th minute of tonight’s ‘Polkraine’ 2012 qualifier between England and Wales at Wembley, a scenario pregnant with possibility was rendered stillborn when the visitors’ manager, Gary Speed, perhaps exercising Annanian levels of diplomacy, pulled off (substituted, that is) his zero-to-hero, self-made man of a striker, Steve Morison of Norwich City, and in so doing threw a huge wet blanket over one of the more eagerly anticipated ‘micropolitical’ intrigues of recent British football. Sort of. 

You see, in a frankly bizarre press conference monologue, Morison had gone to extraordinary lengths to assert his position as regards what most had hitherto considered a fairly insignificant and empty ritual: the swapping of shirts. In protestething too much, methinks he inadvertently flagged up the possibility that (a) he could be football’s Travis Bickle, and (b) he had a slight inferiority complex regarding the puffed-up non-cement-bag-trapping straw idols of the Premier League, which he flatly denied between passing an autobiography to John Terry to sign and asking Ashley Cole for a photo to put on Facebook. This is what The Guardian reporter reported:
“At every level you have to feel you belong. I believe in my ability at whatever team I've played with or against. If you don't have apprehension and anxiety that night before a game thinking 'am I going to be good enough?' then you will never be good enough.” Having previously played non-league football for Bishop’s Stortford and Stevenage Borough before moving to Millwall in 2009, Morison could be forgiven for being starstruck by some of his Premier League peers. The striker insists that is not the case, however, and revealed he will not be looking to swap shirts with the likes of Terry or Wayne Rooney tomorrow, and show a feeling of inferiority.
“If there was a friend I’ve played against I might swap shirts, as I did in the Championship a couple of times with people I had played with at youth-team level,” he said. “I don’t feel I want to run over to somebody after the game and ask for their shirt because as far as I’m concerned we’re all on the same level if we are on the same pitch. If you go out there and go and get somebody’s shirt, nine times out of 10 you have pre-empted doing that. You have thought before the game that ‘I’ll get his shirt’, and from a personal opinion, if he’s not my friend and I've not known him off the pitch I have no reason why I want his shirt. In internationals I have not swapped shirts with anyone – I have always kept my own. If somebody wants to ask for mine I’ll be more than happy to do so, but I’m not going to be somebody who goes up and asks somebody for theirs. I think you need to be like that. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it. I’m not criticising anybody else who swaps – it's just the way I am.”
OK then, glad we’re clear on that.