Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle
Alexandra João Martins
June 13, 2024

Zidane and the phenomenology of football

Pasolini or Cruyff, Camus or Zidane: football’s detractors say there are only 22 players looking for a ball. That’s it — and that’s no small thing. And if two contemporary artists, Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon, decided to make a film about Zizou, it’s because there is a phenomenology to the aesthetic experience that is intertwined with that of the sportive experience. By focusing 17 cameras on Zidane’s body, that of a single player, for 93 minutes, Parreno and Gordon demonstrate one thing: the unshakeable solitude of each of those 22 players. But what kind of solitude is that?

Anyone who has ever played football, especially on large pitches, knows that there’s very little to see, that it’s blurred and focused (with peripheral vision standing out by default) and that what you hear is also diffuse: there’s no defined image of the pitch and, as Zidane points out, “my memories of events and games are fragmented”. It is the constant movement — even more than the position of the ball, which in the film is almost always off the pitch — that defines the practice, and in this way everything else appears as a shadow or a spectre. There is no self-consciousness, but a body that perceives and is perceived from within, that moves and acts in a global relationship with other bodies. There is, in fact, an extract from a documentary about Cristiano Ronaldo, in which the player, in the dark, receives a cross and heads it into the goal, a clear demonstration of the intuition developed through practice. The player senses or anticipates the arrival of the ball, taking into account, firstly, its starting point — in this case, a set piece; secondly, its trajectory and duration, whether it is hit with high or low intensity, with the left or the right foot; and, finally, its position on the pitch and the movement that the player must make. And the obvious failures that regularly occur in this sport prove the opposite: that purely optical vision is not the dominant sense in playing football.

As in an improvised dance, there is a prediction of events based on the perception of body movements — one's own and those of others, as when you feel that someone is chasing you without having seen them. For example, when a player feints by passing the ball between his legs, he rarely has an objective view of his opponent’s legs being spread. There is a glimpse on the one hand, and a prediction on the other. On the few occasions when the two combine, the feint occurs: magic or illusion — “magic is sometimes close to nothing at all”. As was the case with pictorial representation more than a century ago, the key buzzword of modern football, almost always attributed to midfielders, and Zidane in particular, is thus undone — the vision of the game. Parreno and Gordon’s film is proverbial in this deconstruction: you can only see objectively when the shots obey the doctrine of tele-aesthetics, which allows you to look at the game with the distance necessary for tactics or strategy. It’s no coincidence that the general shots are the ones that best serve not only the public but also the football administration. In fact, when these shots are used in the Parreno/Gordon film, they turn the stadium into a place of silence — a place of pure optics — instead of the deafening noise of the stadium.

But Parreno and Gordon do not put themselves in Zidane’s shoes, in other words, they do not make him the main character from which subjective shots would emerge. No, we don’t see him as Zidane. We see him as an exteriority, as another body, like a twelfth player who observes Zidane’s semi-arched and drawn walk, his well-built and straight posture, his opaque face that leaves no room for guessing because there is nothing to guess. It’s the grasping, pre-reflective gestures of someone who has made the ball, but also the pitch and the collective body, an extension of his own, express himself to create a signature. And no player can dictate the rhythm of the game without being taken over by it, as Zizou implies when he says that “the game, the event, is not necessarily experienced or remembered in ‘real time’”. It is the rhythm specific to the experience that dictates the duration, not the other way round. And the feeling is dictated by the body, panting and exhausted, when the heartbeat spreads to the back of your neck and the only certainty you have is that you’re alive.

Parreno/Gordon’s work is certainly a portrait of the 21st century player, but it is also a portrait of the 21st century in the sense that it critically examines the formal expressions of the industrialisation of the media image, whose founding principles date back to the Renaissance, and in which it suggests the perversion of globalisation, of a flow of images that makes it possible to bring together the launch of a new video game and a bomb attack in Iraq. And a child fleeing the war and wearing Zidane’s shirt.

Alexandra João Martins

Alexandra João Martins has a degree in Communication Sciences and a master’s in Art Studies, both from Universidade do Porto, and a PhD in Art Studies from FCSH-Universidade Nova de Lisboa, with a scholarship from FCT. She has written for a range of publications and has been a member of the selection committees for the festivals Curtas Vila do Conde and Porto/Post/Doc. In 2017, she was selected by the Talent Press Rio programme and, in 2018, she commissioned the exhibition Como o Sol/Como a Noite, with support from Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, as part of the retrospective dedicated to António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro within Porto/Post/Doc.

Batalha Centro de Cinema

Praça da Batalha, 47
4000-101 Porto


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