Wednesday, 21 October 2009


It feels childish to talk about having a ‘favourite footballer’. It conjures up memories of swapping Panini stickers or the sort of cover feature that would regularly appear in the pages of Match magazine (or even, this month, the ostensibly more grown up FourFourTwo) – endless, meaningless lists attempting to divine the ‘best player in the world’.

I mentioned the FFT feature in question to a friend recently. “FourFourTwo have done a 100 best players in the world chart,” I said. “Messi?” he responded, with barely a moment’s thought. “Uh…yep.” “OK.”

The utter pointlessness of compiling lists and charts of the ‘best’ in such a non-scientific category as ‘being good at football’ is clear to see.

Apart from being fundamentally incomparable – is Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal scoring record as good as Petr Cech’s clean sheets record? How many of Iniesta’s passes are equal to one of Cannavaro’s tackles? – the very idea of it seems to bring out the worst in those involved, skews the transfer value of players made to look good in strong teams and allows the press regular self-congratulatory pieces declaring, “see, we said Messi was the best in the world and look, there he is, winning the Champions League! No one else saw that coming…”

The worst story that comes to mind, however, concerns the even-more-useless ‘greatest ever footballer’ lists that magazines and newspapers insist on churning out more and more often. Every single lazy interview with any retired footballer includes the question, “Who, in your opinion, was the greatest footballer who ever lived?” You get the standard answers – Pelé, Maradona, Di Stefano, depending on who’s asked. Or not – the names are almost interchangeable. More recently, though, chubby insane mouthpiece Maradona has begun sniping at Pelé, questioning his greatness as if his assumed spot at the top of this pointless league was up for grabs. If anything, Maradona needs to be aware that the good memories won’t last forever.

So what I’m really building up to here is a blog post about my favourite footballer, naturally. Again, it’s the sort of thing you should probably stop bothering to discuss when you’re a kid, but if asked I’d have to say one name: Zinedine Zidane.

Now, as the last two or three paragraphs might suggest, I’m certainly not planning to argue that Zidane was the greatest footballer ever – I don’t believe such a thing does or could ever exist. But he, and every piece of controversy and legend that surrounds him, has gone a long way to shaping my view on what makes football such a fascinating game.

Zidane – winner of the Ballon D’Or, two Scudetti in Italy with Juventus, one Spanish championship and the Champions League with Real Madrid, one World Cup and a European Championship with France and the FIFA World Player of the Year award three times (phew) –was a player who could be appreciated in still, snapshot images.

In my head he’s always motionless (though he rarely was on the pitch, of course) – his giant, Easter Island head with its thousand yard stare burns his image into any piece of paper or any screen, lending him a genuinely iconic and statuesque appearance to the extent that it’s hard to imagine he really exists at all. In my head is a picture of Zidane staring manically at an opponent, or up into the sky after missing a chance. It’s the picture of him ramming Marco Materazzi in the chest during the 2006 World Cup Final (surely the one genuinely memorable moment of the tournament, the one that will resonate for decades) and this picture of him walking past the World Cup for the last time:

I don’t think I’m the only one to have seen something classical in the great man and how he played. It seems strange now to imagine him alongside the other galacticos who arrived at Real Madrid in the early part of this decade. He seems too big, too lumbering – and not nearly pretty or glamorous enough to be a standard Bernabeu pin-up. And yet he inspired an intellectual response in those who watched him; he seemed to be a cultured, intelligent player who was a student of the game, rather than a mercurial talent who simply came to it naturally.

Belgian writer Jean-Phillipe Toussaint wrote a short book entitled Le Mélancolie de Zidane shortly after the 2006 final, a ‘lyrical essay’ dealing with the infamous headbutt. It’s hard to imagine another player inspiring such a poetic response with a rash, explosive act of retaliatory violence.

Another reason I find Zidane so fascinating is the extent to which he was a hero to the poor, disenfranchised immigrant communities in France – and particularly in his hometown of Marseilles. Born to Algerian Muslims in 1972, his great success as a footballer made him a beacon for those many thousands of immigrants trapped in the social squalor of many French cities’ banlieues areas. I wish I could remember where I read this, but there was one intriguing theory about Zidane’s headbutt – his final act as a professional footballer – arguing that he felt he needed to do it to show his millions of adoring fans that he was fallible, still human and still prone to anger and stupidity. This is, I admit, a slightly romantic way to view a violent reaction to an insult about someone’s sister, but, hey – when it comes to football I’m nothing if not romantic.

I can’t finish talking about Zidane without mentioning the film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. If you haven’t seen it and even if you have no interest in football – watch it. It’s barely about football anyway. For one league match at Real Madrid in 2005, 17 synchronised hi-definition cameras were trained on Zidane and their operators instructed to show only Zidane himself – and as little as possible of the game. What results is quite literally what the title says: a portrait. A beautiful, poetic and downright mesmerising portrait. For the full 90 minutes of the game we are able to study his every mannerism, his focus on the game, his rapport with his team mates – and his explosive temper. Football fans will appreciate the insight into how the quintessential ‘midfield general’ operated. Non-football fans will appreciate the chance to see a person fully immersed in that which they were made to do; including their skills, their triumphs and their character flaws.

I see this opportunity all through football – and I certainly saw it in Zidane.

No comments:

Post a Comment