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.