The average maximum temperature in Madrid in mid to late April is 18 °C. It would have been somewhat cooler than that in the Bernabéu Stadium, at 9 p.m. on 23 April 2005, when Zinédine Zidane walked onto the pitch with Real Madrid to face Villarreal, even under the floodlights and swathed in the body-heat of 72,485 restless spectators. But by the time Darius Khondji’s high-definition cameras find him, four minutes into Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait, ‘Zizou’ is already sweating. Every few seconds, he blows the droplets away from his mouth; they collect and drip from his earlobes and his chin. There is no impression of effort – there is never any impression of effort – but Zidane’s adrenaline is up, his concentration complete. Even standing still, he is working hard.
The film is 90 minutes long, a real-time record of a single football match made with 17 cameras placed at different vantage points in the Bernabéu, all of them trained exclusively on Zidane. We see the kick-off on a television monitor; but the film camera immediately draws nearer to pick out Zidane, who blurs and dissolves as the frame narrows still further; his gait and monk-pattern baldness are easy to recognise even as he fragments into countless green, red and blue pixels. The point is made: the galáctico, like any modern celebrity, is available to us only through his mediation, and the more pervasive his image, the more frustratedly we recognise that he remains finally opaque, unreachable. The film begins and ends with a neat ideogram, a superimposition of the letters of Zidane’s name: the effect of his total presence is to obscure him completely.
This may be the idea the film starts out with; it is not what makes it compelling. Watching Zidane at work in this way is an extraordinary experience. He is in possession of the ball for only a tiny fraction of the game, a total of perhaps two minutes or less. Much of what he does in those two minutes is exhilarating. In one moment, he leaps and curves his body in the air to catch a long, high ball at his midriff, killing its speed so that it drops to the turf at his feet; in another, he feints to cross the ball with his left foot and in the same motion releases it in the opposite direction with his right; again and again, he carries the ball at speed into the heart of Villarreal’s defence, guarding and propelling it with delicate touches as the defenders back-pedal before him. These sudden bursts of movement – in which Zidane, however frantic the activity around him, retains an absolute poise – are the only moments when the action of the game coincides with what we see. Between times, we watch him as he stalks the field, tracking the ball and waiting.
This kind of thing has been attempted before. In 1970, Hellmuth Costard filmed George Best playing for Manchester United against Coventry City. Costard was forced to shoot Best with fewer cameras and from a greater distance, so that he most often appears full-length and as part of the game going on around him. The resulting film, Fussball wie noch nie (‘Football Like Never Before’), is very different from Zidane partly because of these aesthetic choices and technological constraints, but also because of the differences between the two subjects. Best was as exuberant on the pitch as he was off it; his gifts were extravagant, and he liked to show them off. His charismatic style, and his fallibility as a player were continuous with his media persona, so that we both recognise him and imagine we get to know him better by watching Costard’s film.
This is not the experience of watching Zidane. His cropped hair, his leanness, give an impression of asceticism. His features are still, his eyes shadowed under heavy brows. There are flickers of consternation, of irritation, of concern, impatience and contempt; he smiles only once, sharing a joke with Roberto Carlos. But for the most part he is impassive. Even after his finest moment, in the 70th minute of the game, when he glides through the Villarreal defence, spins on his right foot and loops a perfect cross with his left for Ronaldo to score at the far post, his expression barely changes. It has always been the convention in Hollywood cinematography that the close-up guarantees intimacy with its subject; in this, it shares with one important tradition of portraiture the notion that the image should express interiority. In Zidane, the relentless scrutiny of his face yields little in the way of an inner self, still less anything that would help us to account for his sublime skill. We feel for him, but do not identify with him; he is alone, lonely even, and distant, other.
Gordon’s film wouldn’t have been given a cinema release – his work is normally shown in galleries – if it hadn’t been for the way Zidane ended the last game of his career in July. Captaining France in the final of the World Cup, he was sent off for violent conduct: in what must immediately have become one of the most widely seen sporting images of all time, he drives his head – forcefully and, it must be said, with considerable grace – into Marco Materazzi’s chest. He was, he claimed later, responding to the Italian defender’s ‘very hard words’ about his mother and his sister. In the final moments of Zidane – it is stoppage time at the end of the game, and Real have all but won, having come back from a goal down to lead 2-1 – a mêlée begins off-screen. Zidane, who is thirty yards away at the time, suddenly breaks from the frame. Another camera, further away, finds him again as he jogs, then sprints towards the arguing players. He catches one of them with a glancing blow, and is protectively wrestled away by David Beckham. He stands alone again, as he has for much of the film, but awkward now and a little wretched. The referee dismisses him, and the film ends as he leaves the field, shrugging off the attentions of his team-mates.
More than anything, in this moment, it feels as though we should have been able to see the explosion coming, that having watched him so closely for so long, the signs should have been there. They weren’t, of course. Watching Zidane at work is different from interpreting an actor’s simulations in a Hollywood movie, different from examining a painter’s attempt to express his subject’s essence. Searching his face for 90 minutes brings us no closer to understanding his actions at the end of this game, just as no account of his interaction with Materazzi can account for his final self-immolation. If that’s what it was. Unlike any other player on the pitch that night in July, Zidane was the only one with nothing left to prove. He had won everything there was to win, every trophy, every personal honour, many of them several times over; and eight years earlier, he had scored two goals in France’s 3-0 World Cup Final victory over Brazil. How do you end a career like this? In this year’s final, Zidane missed his chance at the perfect climax – a winning goal in extra time to regain the cup for France – when Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper, tipped his powerful header over the bar. He was sent off minutes later. You couldn’t explain why by reading Materazzi’s lips, or by watching Zidane, or by studying the biography of this son of Algerian immigrants, the story of his rise from the poor northern suburbs of Marseille to become the greatest footballer in the world. There are, though, more economical forms of explanation, sometimes from unexpected sources. At a party the day after the game, a friend of mine overheard a psychoanalyst, asked why she thought he’d done it, reply: ‘You know, I think he’d just had enough.’