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Existential Claustrophobia


In watching Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, we may realise that football is so often taken to be a team sport that it would seem wilfully perverse to concentrate on one man’s game to the detriment of all else.  But maybe the ‘teamness’ of the game isn’t the only problem here – that the problem resides even more in removing the context; that football demands an ever expanding sense of perspective to understand the game and that is the very thing Zidane determinedly removes. This necessary context is of course true of most sports: imagine watching a game of tennis from only one side of the net, or a hundred metres sprint from only one runner’s point of view, or a boxing match from only one boxer’s? Sure running films like Chariots of Fire and boxing films from Rocky to Raging Bull have focused upon the individuality of the protagonists, but they’ve also filled out the event: they’ve placed the characters’ actions within what Heidegger would call the being-with-others, the Mitsein aspect almost intrinsic to sporting activity, whether a team game or otherwise.

Now this Mitsein is so often taken for granted in relation to sport, that it’s as if the directors of Zidane, the artist Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, wanted to find out if there is anything left of a sporting event when you turn it into Dasein, into a being for oneself. Now there are certain activities that have a strong element of Dasein – the walk for example, perhaps non-competitive long distance running, even, taking into account football itself, the keepie-up, a sort of football by-product of juggling, where the player keeps the ball in the air with his feet, chest, head and knees. These conform to a certain low key existentialism, but perhaps it is when you actively remove the being with others of a sport predicated on that shared being that a certain phenomenological anxiety comes into play. As Heidegger says in What is Metaphysics?: “Being held out into the nothing – as Dasein is – on the ground of concealed anxiety is its surpassing of being as a whole. It is transcendence.” Do the filmmakers find a way of transcending football?

In Zidane it’s as though the directors wanted to see what would happen when you basically defamiliarise an activity. Like an early seventies film that focused exclusively on George Best, Football As Never Before, Zidane proves experimental because of the way it removes context and replaces it with an existential focus: with the filmmakers reputedly originally thinking of drawing deliberate analogies with another existential thinker, Albert Camus, and specifically The Outsider. In other words, how can the filmmakers show a footballer being for oneself, even as he so happens to be being for others on the football pitch? How do the filmmakers find the existential within an activity that ostensibly offers a double negation of self and singularity? First there is the other in relation to one’s teammates; secondly there is the other in relation to one’s opponents. By analogy we can suggest that football actually resembles Sartre’s definition of shame – that football is an unreflective, essentially social activity whose central appeal to both player and fan is the attempt to ward off shame and achieve approbration and esteem. We need only see what happens when a player usually scores a goal; how he runs to the crowd to receive their praise, and how all the other players run after him to offer their admiration.  Now when Sartre says in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, in relation to shame, that “this gesture clings to me: I neither judge it nor blame it. I simply live it. I realize it in the mode of for-itself. But now suddenly I raise my head. Somebody was there and has seen me. Suddenly I realize the vulgarity of my gesture, and I am ashamed. It is certain that my shame is not reflective…” we can replace the word shame with adulation and thus have something of the footballer’s mode of being. But it’s as if the directors wanted to find out what is left of a footballer’s being when you remove from him the context of the game, the team mates he needs to play the game with, and the crowds who offer him the necessary approval for his achievements. These are the coordinates that make football a narrative – a narrative that even of course respects the rules of continuity filmmaking: the whole game is shot from just one side of the pitch so that it remains consistent with the 180 degree rule that allows the viewer to know where he is at all times.

But let us say it has been no accident that George Best and Zidane have been chosen as players to whom the existential spotlight can be focused. For Best represents the nearly man of football, the Northern Irish genius with a self-destructive streak who played for a country that at the time never had a chance of achieving very much internationally, and thus Best never played one game of World Cup football. Had he played for England, he would probably have been in the 1966 World Cup winning team – no matter Alf Ramsay’s unadventurousness – and might have been the difference in the 1970 World Cup when many believed England had their best team ever. And of course by his thirties Best seemed to have lost interest in the game, showing a greater enthusiasm for birds and booze that lead to that famous gag about Best having a Miss World in his bed and a Champagne hangover in his head. Someone comes to the door of his upmarket hotel room and asks where it all went wrong, and we laugh because, from a certain point of view, it couldn’t have got much better.

And, anyway, if this was self-destruction, at least there was a self to destroy. Best seemed to have a streak of defiance in him that lent itself well to the sort of existential singularity of focusing on Best alone. There is a lovely anecdote from early in his career where as a teenager he used to stay out on the pitch long after the others had gone home after training, and he would continuously hit the ball off the crossbar as he practiced the accuracy of his shot. There are other anecdotes stating that when Best first came to Manchester, he promptly returned home to Belfast, homesick. (Brian Glanville’s Book of Footballers) Another tells of Best’s manager at United, Matt Busby, telling him to play a holding game, and he instead went out and scored two goals against Benfica in a 5-1 away victory in 1966 (Chronicle of 20th Century Sport). When we look at his career, the consistency resides less in his dedication to the sport, to Northern Ireland, to a lover or to his team, than to some perverse form of self-realisation that seemed to counter social expectation, and which found its desire in alcoholism. When we see Best playing in Football as Never Before he seems barely to be playing at all. In a cold winter’s afternoon he stands most of the time with the sleeves of his jersey pulled down over his hands as if the most important thing is just getting the ninety minutes over with, keen to avoid catching a cold. As Eamon Dunphy proposed “there was something different about Best from the beginning.” (Chronicle of 20th Century Sport)

We might say the same about Zidane, just as we may wonder what other players could justifiably deserve a film to themselves, a whole ninety minutes that would explore as much their behavioural specifics as their team spirit. Pele and Maradona, surely, even Platini and Cantona, players for whom the game seemed to provide a context for their talents rather as a well-written play brings out the genius of certain actors; where we can see the actors’ existential singularity through the context of a broader milieu. But the question we might ask is can the genius come through if you remove its context? If the monologue or the one-man show may resemble the footballer who plays keepie-up for hours without letting the ball hit the ground, then the play resembles the entire game: it is the context for the brilliance. What Gordon and Parreno want to find out is whether the brilliance can exist in and of itself.  Can it function as Dasein, if you like?

The answer seems to be yes and no, because what we see in the film is less Zidane’s footballing brilliance, than the difficulty of being ‘Zidane’. It is as though the film wanted to concentrate not on the ease of being Zidane – the footballing master controlling a game with three hundred and sixty degree vision and nimble turns that defy his size – but the mental and physical exhaustion of a footballing icon. Thus central to the film is something as simple as sweat. Throughout the game we see Zinedine wiping sweat from his brow, breathing heavily, concentrated and focused. As Martine Beugnet says in Cinema and Sensation: [the film’s use of the telephoto lens] “gives an uncanny sense of intimacy to certain shots, obliterating the sense of depth to the point where we feel the camera gaze literally touch the body of the player.” It’s like watching not the racing car in a Grand Prix, but the pistons of the car’s engine going up and down. This is football as first law of thermodynamics: this is sport as work.  (In this sense the Best film is its antithesis: football as idleness, showing the long dull periods where a player like Best simply won’t be involved.)  In the directors’ concentrated take on the footballer we see less the footballer as social idol performing for the public, and much more the existential loner trapped in a world called football, a world with its own rules and rituals, its own expectations and demands. As we watch him play in this game between Real Madrid and Villarreal, we think not of the finest footballer in the world, but of a Sysiphian struggle, of a player forced to push not the boulder up and down a mountain, but a ball up and down the pitch.

So we don’t really see Zidane’s footballing genius, but then of course genius is a very relative term, demanding the very context the film eschews. What instead the directors give us is an allusive context, the sort of context that doesn’t bring out the footballer’s brilliance, but instead the footballer’s responsibility, and influence. During half-time, Gordon and Perreno show us news footage from around the world that day, and we see after one Middle-East atrocity, a youngster at the scene wearing a football top with Zidane’s name emblazoned on the back. Imagine, the films seems to be saying, if one gets caught in a parallel context; not the context of the game – of the well-made play that is the ninety minute plus football match, with its eleven players on each side and its given rules of off-side, goal-size, eighteen yard penalty area etc. – but of one’s precarious place in the world. Imagine if in this parallel universe you felt not just the potential trap that happens to be the game, but a wider trap that is your own fame; how can one escape?

Again, we might want to turn to existential problematics and the idea of the acte gratuit, or the gratuitous act: the act that takes one outside of oneself. So, for example, we commit the perfect crime not in terms of planning and execution, but much more through a complete absence of motivation and through a completely arbitrary action – like pushing a stranger out of a train for no other reason than that you can: as Andre Gide explores in The Vatican Cellars. It breaks with every element of your identity up until that point. In some ways Zidane’s sending off here, as well as a number of other occasions, including most obviously the 2006 World Cup Final, resembles the gratuitous act. Of course the very fact Zidane’s been sent off numerous times in his career (including in the 1998 World Cup) would suggest the action possesses a predictability, a consistency, outwith the gratuitous act. And yet Zidane is also famous for what people perceive is his cool temperament, even icy demeanour. It was also true that after the World Cup Final sending off, for several days the French and international newspapers discussed the inexplicability of the action, discussing various reasons for the sending off and what provoked him to head-butt an opponent in the chest.

After all, Zidane is the opposite of a player who loses his bottle at key moments: he’s frequently scored in big matches, like in the 1998 World Cup final; scored important late minutes goals, and nerve-shredding penalties: he hardly falls into the category of the hot-headed, temperamental footballer. Yet at the same time there are these sending-offs without the explicable motives we would expect in terms of temperament, as if he wanted to counter the issue of shame at the moment where shame would apparently be most present. Thus there is the Sartrean idea of shame, which is essentially a social feeling; yet at the same time there is the attempt to transcend the social with the shameful act. As Zidane gets sent off here shortly before the end of the match, it is almost as if the player has taken responsibility for his own existence within the game. If one were to say Zidane committed footballing suicide during the World Cup Final it would be undeniably hyperbolic yet curiously existentially telling. When Camus describes The Absurd Man in The Myth of Sysiphus can we not just change the activity? “It happens that the stage-sets collapse. Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins that weariness tinged with amazement.”

Now we needn’t insistently play up parallels, but no footballer appears so casually contained when scoring vital goals, nor so ready to react when an injustice seems to be felt. Zidane seems one of those few player who quite literally won’t play the game Thus he not only radically alters the sport in which he plays –  few thought France would win the 1998 World cup because they lacked a striker; and yet retrospectively it was so obvious that with Zidane controlling the game France didn’t need one. Comparisons could be made with Platini’s midfield attacking European championship winning side of 1984, but Zidane’s robust skill and flair that almost looked close to clumsiness seemed to usher in a new type of football, consistent with the evolutionary aspect philosopher Gilles Deleuze talks about when saying in an essay in Negociations “…one speaks of style in sport. Very detailed studies have been done on style in sport, but I’m no expert on this; I think perhaps they show that style amounts to innovation.”

In this sense style is a secondary principle in sport; the first lies in winning. But what might a third principle be like? Perhaps breaking the rules, refusing to play the game, refusing the existential limitations of the form – and thus committing footballing suicide. The directors admit that they more or less caught Zidane in a still further trap. By training seventeen cameras on him during one match, players from Villareal said “they would do everything they could to stop Zidane playing a good game in order for us to have not much to record.”  If the aim was to show Zidane as an existential loner caught within a world in which he couldn’t readily escape, then the very process of filming him with seventeen cameras exacerbated this feeling of entrapment.

This is finally really no more than to say that while football gives the impression of immense freedom, like most sports it is contained within a series of assumptions, rules and expectations that show, from a certain perspective, and that perspective happens to be Gordon and Perreno’s film, that freedom is very far in this instance from having, as Kris Kristofferson would say, nothing left to lose. There is usually very much at stake, but that is partly what makes Zidane’s inexplicable temper tantrums, his violent outbursts, interesting: as if in his case freedom is just another word for having very much to lose. As Hannah McGill suggests, Zidane embodies “the stratospheric financial value now attributed to top players…” and comments on the sport’s “shift from a specialised, primarily working-class interest to global media obsession and megabucks business.” And if that isn’t enough, as another critic, Richard T. Kelly, remarks, Zidane, “the staunch son of a Berber Algerians raised on a Marseilles estate” (Sight and Sound, Oct. 2006) found himself saddled with the impossible role-model burden of embodying a cancellation of French racial tensions…” Kelly reckons this “is surely a clue to his bouts of fury, to this and a good few other sendings-off.” It is as the directors have tried to find two men in this portrait, to the detriment of the common one held together by the rules and regulations of football, and the megahype that surrounds it. One is Zidane as playmaker, but instead of focusing on the skill, concentrates on the engine room aspect of the footballer. The second is Zidane as the opposite of the automaton; an existential self, making decisions from the depths of thought and discomfort. Where the red card Zidane comes from who knows, for after all an acte gratuit isn’t a worked through decision, but rather an impulsive act, a moment of freedom when the walls all around you seem to be closing in. Thus it is surely apt to call Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait strangely stifling as it concentrates on one man and his game, but at the same time illustrates well a certain existential claustrophobia.


©Tony McKibbin