Zinedine Zidane is an enigma. Celebrated for the beauty of his play, his career was nevertheless punctuated by moments of violence. Can we ever know the real Zidane?

When I can’t sleep, I think of Zinedine Zidane. This has been my way of coping with insomnia ever since I was a child. In this ambivalent state between consciousness and sleep, Zidane is preserved as I first remember him: young – insofar as Zidane ever looked young – almost bald, with a crown of black hair, much like a monk. He wears the white of Madrid, as if an apparition, accompanying me to my dreams.

I picture Zizou pirouetting on the ball, evading faceless defenders. Mere props to his brilliance, they move in awkward, flip book jerks: only Zidane moves as a continuous image.

Why does Zidane occupy this place in my imagination?

Because he played beautifully. Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer and pianist, said that football is ‘the ballet of the masses.’ Shostakovich’s is a romantic view: he’d clearly never seen Kevin Davies play. Yet watching Zidane, the composer’s idea seems almost plausible. Few, if any players, have moved around a football pitch with Zidane’s grace. His elegance is all the more striking given he looks like a sixteenth-century friar. Marcel Desailly, Zidane’s France teammate, thought of Zidane not as a footballer, but as ‘a true artist.’ Even Paul Scholes, who rarely speaks in anything more than monotone, monosyllables, sees the comparison of Zidane with art. ‘To see Zidane in action’, Scholes said ‘was to witness poetry in motion.’

Scholes’ comments suggest that Zidane is not an artist, but art itself. In 2005, filmmakers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno made this literal. Their film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait follows the Frenchman during one match against Villarreal on April 23rd, 2005.

A film conceived as a tribute to football’s beauty, ends in the kind of handbags you might see on any British high street on a Friday night.

For 80 minutes, Zidane offers a lesson in style. He is effortless and elegant.  With Zidane as their subject, the filmmakers have bridged the gap between art and football.

But if one metaphor for describing football’s action is art, then another is war. Football is an ‘invasion game’, in which teams attempt to defend their territory while attacking the opposition’s goal. The language of football is saturated with martial metaphor. George Orwell had precedent when he described sport as ‘war minus the shooting’.

Zidane didn’t need a gun: he was pretty handy with his fists (not to mention his forehead). Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait ends with him being sent off for his part in a fight. A film conceived as a tribute to football’s beauty, ends in the kind of handbags you might see on any British high street on a Friday night.

Zidane: A Red Card Retrospective would be an equally honest appraisal of his legacy. He was sent off fourteen times in his career, the last of which was one of the most famous acts of violence ever committed on a football pitch, when he headbutted Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final. Even this act has been immortalised, made into a 5-metre-high statue by the French artist Adel Abdessemed and unveiled at the Pompadou Centre in 2012.

Gordon and Parreno’s film reveals Zidane not so much as art, but as an enigma, resisting easy categorisation. And it’s not just art that wants to claim Zidane. After France’s victory in the 1998 World Cup, Zidane, the child of Algerian immigrants, who had scored two goals in the final, was heralded as the symbol of a new, multicultural and tolerant France. During the nation’s celebration of their World Cup victory, his face was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe, a symbol of French nationalism reclaimed. Zidane was the nation’s saviour from its imperial past, banishing intolerance with the beauty of his play.

Liberal France claim Zidane for their story of national rebirth, Gordon and Parreno claim Zidane for art and I claim him for my dreams. Yet all of these claims on Zidane ignore the man himself. He rarely comments on politics. I’m sure he’d have even less to say about being a substitute for sleeping pills. When he speaks about football, he does so not in terms of beauty, but in terms of winning.

Edwin Van der Sar, the former Ajax and Manchester United goalkeeper, who played with Zidane at Juventus, was perhaps one of the few able to avoid mythologizing the Frenchman. For Van der Sar, Zidane is simply ‘a very normal guy.’

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