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Thinking About Zidane

December 23, 2013
Zinedine Zidane: a portrait of the man for what he was.

Zinedine Zidane: a portrait of the lonely artist in his loneliness.


When I think about French superstar Zinedine Zidane, I do so with terribly mixed feelings.

I confess, with a touch of anxiety even.

The thing is:  I love him – by that I mean: I am absolutely attracted to the way he played football; what he did was sheer art. I want to wholeheartedly embrace his mythical figure, his panache, his achievements as the pinnacle of quality in football since Maradona’s reign – but I can’t. I try, but there’s something within me that stops me from going completely nuts over Zidane, and it’s a struggle. You see, I’m Brazilian.

When I think about Zidane, it’s impossible to separate myself from the bitter memories and the shattered dreams of my  15 year old self. Zidane’s brilliant performance against Brazil in 1998 felt like someone pulling the rug from under my feet, rolling it up, and smacking me right in the face with it multiple times, for days. Not to mention, I had a bloody Maths exam the next day (no Summer break for me then, as I was in Brazil and the country happens to be inconveniently located in the Southern hemisphere.)

It was tough getting over the hardcore bits of  bitterness, especially as a teenager.

And then Zidane did it again, in 2006. Only he was even more brilliant then, if that were even possible.

And again I struggled to get over the bitterness. I confess, it was painfully hard; because, as a pure fan of the sport, all I really wanted to do was to give Zizou a bombastic standing ovation. But I couldn’t. My innate old-fashioned machismo told me it would be dishonourable. So I remained silent. Strangely, my cold, bitter reaction was very much “Zidanian”, in that I tried to contain my anger, preserve myself, remain together, sternly – because, like Zidane, I am all too familiar with my mercurial side.

But then I grew up, and things aren’t so bitter anymore. Although they certainly remain conflicted.

Since becoming a man (ha, even I chuckled at that), Zinedine Zidane has gained a new dimension for me. He is no longer a tragic symbol of broken Brazilian dreams, but the fascinating embodiment of zero tolerance for bullshit in football.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Zidane reels on YouTube (the one scored by the insufferable Coldplay song “the Scientist” is my favourite). Equally, I’ve seen the unique documentary “Zidane: a 21 Century Portrait” multiple times. The man is addictive. It’s astonishing how ridiculously beautiful it is to watch him move in slow motion. It is electrifying.

And every time I catch myself drooling over his highlights, I ask: why is it that I can watch and re-watch these videos without ever getting bored? What is it about Zidane that makes him so impossibly watchable?

There’s a touch of Ayrton Senna to the man, you’ll have to agree. They share a mysteriously mythical aura that is found in silent men who seem to be always wearing an invisible mask in public – a mask which hides incredibly dark secrets and thoughts.

The secret, I think – in both cases – is a terrible feeling of absolute loneliness.

Senna and Zidane were both incredibly attractive, rich and ridiculously talented men – but I bet they felt fundamentally alone.

The feeling of painful solitude is more understandable in Senna’s case: one silent man driving a car, covered by a big helmet, competing against every single driver around him. But Zidane was playing a collective, contact sport, and yet, if you see “a 21st Century Portrait”, you will notice how painfully lonely the man looks on that pitch. He rarely speaks with his team-mates. He rarely gesticulates. He never holds the ball for too long; it’s almost as if he’s a bridge, whose job is to come in contact with the ball, filter it through some awesome smoothing process, and then pass it to a team-mate as economically and efficiently as possible.

Could such loneliness come from natural genius? It must be a terribly disappointing existence, once you realize everyone around you is simply not as smart, nor as good as you. No wonder Sherlock Holmes solves crimes in order to avoid boredom. Senna and Zidane shared that: they seemed bored, a lot of the times – go on YouTube, and watch them in action. There is a lot of staring into the skies, fiddling with the grass on the pitch, fiddling with car bits, staring blankly ahead, etc. But then when you see them in their element, in the middle of an actual struggle, their genius shines through and something stupidly amazing happens. It never fails. And then you go “where the fuck did that come from? From nothing?! How?!”

Indeed, most likely, it is that sense of anticipation – as we navigate through the athlete’s boredom – that keeps us gripped, waiting for that something amazing to happen.

However, there’s something even more tragic about Zidane’s loneliness, when compared to Senna’s. Unlike the Brazilian, Zidane doesn’t seem to show any signs of a particular religiosity. The Frenchman is painfully secular in disposition. Again: zero bullshit.

Senna, as in the case of most (if not all) Brazilian sports superstars, was a highly spiritual man. Every victory celebration was a nod to God: “thanks for making me so awesome”. Every win was thanks to absolute divine intervention. That has been the Brazilian way for as long as I can remember. I grew up with that and, quite frankly, it has always alienated me. Indeed, it is still one of the reasons why I choose to live abroad: I have nothing against religion, but I do feel uncomfortable with the bombastic expression of religious feelings. It overwhelms me. Mainly because it is alien to me, and it makes me feel like I am missing out on something that I was simply born without. In fact, I envy people like Senna and Kaka: they seem so sure that everything will be ok…

I’m afraid I’m more like Zidane. I know that, at the end of the day, no matter how well things seem to be going, something truly bad can just happen in a flash, and everything changes. Marco Materazzi’s chest would agree with that.

In that lack of superfluous religiosity, Zinedine Zidane rings absolutely refreshing to me. He is what he is. There is no extra magic aside from his natural, physical magic, and that is what’s so astonishing about the man. He stands on that pitch, and gravity seems to pull harder in that spot. There’s weight to his performance. Not in the sense that it’s heavy – in fact, when he runs he seems to glide like an elegant Bolshoi-trained gazelle – but in the sense that it sucks in our attention absolutely. And all of that happens with him just being there, his face and voice frozen; stillness at its most glorious. In truth, when France won the World Cup, I remember seeing headlines in Brazil that said things like “Frozen Brazil Lose As Iceman Gives France the Trophy”.

Zinedine Zidane was sheer economical art. He was without fuss, like the personification of elegant Scandinavian interior design for football.

I miss him, terribly.

He was the embodiment of uncompromising football. He made everyone else around him look like phonies; probably because they were phonies in the first place.

And Zidane knew it.




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