Zidane, Serres, and the beautiful game

Being a long-time fan, some years ago I bought the film portrait of the French footballer Zinedine Zidane, by many considered one of the best individual players in the history of football. A number of cameras follow his every move on the pitch for a whole 90-minute match, some from a long distance, some focusing on his face, his whole body, or his feet, from various angles.

Watching this film is completely different from watching a TV match. On TV, the cameras follow the ball as it moves around on the pitch. It seems like something is always happening. Not so in this film. Following a single player, you realize how much each of them is not directly involved. Isolated from context, the meaning of the game is lost.

Almost 20 cameras on Zidane alone. They even have a microphone on him. Throughout the game, he doesn't say a single word. He smiles to a joking opponent, pats David Beckham's back after their team scores a goal, points a couple of times to suggest passing options for team mates - and that's it. As some film reviews said, this is the perfect portrait of the (paradoxically) lone athlete: closely observed by cameras and billions of spectators (Zidane's North-African background has made him the main football-idol of that whole region alone), yet speaking with nobody, seeing no one, hearing nothing.

Yet the loneliness only serves to bring out what one might not realize was there - the constituting relationality that carries the beautiful game

In a passage in The Five Senses, Michel Serres describes the intuitive sensations of ball games. While the description deals with hand ball and rugby, it can easily be translated into that of playing football. The fact that footballers aren't allowed to grip the ball at all, and so cannot stall its movement even the slightest (except by using the sole of their foot - a move demanding exceptional abilities, at least on higher levels), only emphasizes Serres's point.

"Usually, when the ball is passed - and it flies so quickly so as not to be intercepted - it moves from one pair of skilful hands to another; acute, vigilant glances are exchanged, often preceded by a call, word, cry, brief interjection, vowel and even a coded hand gesture. The ball runs with them, after these signals, at the same time as they do, along the network of fluctuating channels that they trace out. Suddenly the ball takes their place, all other signals are extinguished. The whole team enters a box, a dim cave, the clamour of the spectators becomes distant like the far-off seashore, the opposing team dances like a group of shadows without strength, ghosts; it is at that moment that my body positions itself at the point where the ball will pass, I throw it into the vacuum that another cherubim will fill, immediately and unquestioningly, we no longer look at each other, no longer hear each other, no longer speak to each other or call out to each other - our eyes are shut, our mouths closed, our ears blocked, we have no language, we are monads - we know, anticipate, love each other; we anticipate each other at lightning speed, we cannot go wrong, it is playing: not me or my partners but the team itself. I move to the right, I know that another player knows that I have done so, that the ball will await me. The ball is traveling so fast that it weaves between us bonds of unassailable certainty; as this certainty is seamless, the ball can travel around even more rapidly, and as it travels more rapidly it weaves...No-one who has not experienced such ecstasy can know what being together means." (p324)

Good players not only move the ball around - they adapt to the movement of the ball, the movement of other players, and the multiple forces that generate and influence all the intermingled movements - from gravity to one's knowledge of the opponent's strengths and weaknesses.

Seen one way, the ball is the most stable centre of the many movements. Its movements - together with an increasing number of restrictions - determine the game. Yet it is also the thing that moves the most itself. It is only still when there is some breach of the rules, or it goes beyond the confines of the pitch, and it must be put back into play. It has the highest speed and farthest reach of anything on the pitch. Every year new  footballs are designed that move faster and further. Even when it goes off the pitch, one has had to invent rules for how to get the ball back on so the game can continue.Every decade or so, the official rules are modified so as to keep or increase the tempo of the game - 'locking' the ball is not allowed, it must move freely; the goalkeeper can only grip the ball in his hands for a limited time; he must never grip the ball with his hands when receiving it from a team mate, etc. The movement of the ball trumps all.

The best players adapt, they give way, they allow themselves to be molded, they give themselves up to the ball's dictation. Does this mean that the worship-like veneration of individual football 'idols' is a mere mass-media phenomenon - an illusion, since any player might be made good or bad by the team as a whole? Relationality and reciprocity is on the contrary fundamental both on macro- and micro levels. The skillful individual dribbler makes use of the ball's trajectory, and feigns intervention, for example by pretending to alter its course from left to right. Yet the body's dance is always adapting to the movement of the ball - or to how its movement is predicted by the opponent player. The strong individual player is the one who kenotically loses himself to the other movements, yet receives himself (as a strong player) from these. The strongest have spent daily hours turning this self-giving into embodied habits.

In many ways, the relational, the paradoxical "in-between", is therefore the central factor in football, that which constitutes all other movements. Following thinkers such as Michel Serres, we could see this as an instant (rather than image) of Reality as such. The game is hence a 'concentrated' rather than altered or 'fake' version of Reality. A dialectic between creativity and boundaries, process and static. A liturgical dance.

You can watch the whole film here

1 comment:

  1. hi stefan, thanks for the post!

    brian massumi also picks up serres' musings on football/rugby in his "parables for the virtual" -- which i've begun to pick away at as you have here.... :)