Monday, July 3, 2006

Swindle On Soccer, Vol. 7: Zizou!

Swindle On Soccer archive

If you didn't see the Brasil-France match,
then watch this before you read this post. -Kanu

In 1998, we watched Ronaldo splinter under the burden
of being the Phenomenon as a 21 year old god of the
pitch. A mysterious hospital visit and collapse;
murmurs of mental instability, and a miasma of rumor
wafted in with Ronaldo's entrance into a game he never
really entered as a French team juggled around and
over a Brazilian team unable to lay a single gifted
foot on the ball in the final of the Mundial. From our
seat on the west coast of Taiwan, nothing seemed right
with the world, save the craggy, determined face of
French soccer that seemed to be the dictonary
illustration of elan, the telekinetic Zinedine Zidane.
He made sense, even when his demonic ability to put
the ball on a teammate's toe from thirty yards
short-circuited all rational thought. In the end all
the eye had was the fact of the tonsured Algerian and
his cohorts short-circuiting the finely tuned samba of
the Brazilians, and for a brain seeking order in
chaos, that image was enough.

It was the best of times,

It was the worst of times.

Six years passed. Zidane became an old man at 34.
Ronaldo went from bonanza contract to bonanza contract
in between picking up a Cup with Brazil in a
magnificent turn in '02. Despite the passing of over
two thousand days in between, the match between Brazil
and France ultimately faded to a present, familiar
comparison. Ronaldo, now noticeably corpulent but
still a jackal around the goal; Zidane, now
close-cropped but still somewhere between the age of
30 and 60, still possessed with the pressbox camera
feed in his head allowing him to hit teammates sight
unseen and feint opponents into spinning, futile knots
of frustration.

The rematch, eight years later.

A certain element of the fatal and evanescent crept
into the match around the forty minute mark. Zidane
has already announced that this World Cup will be his
adieu, not only to the Cup but to soccer altogether.
Ronaldo is clearly in the Elvis phase of his career.
Both have hit the point where physically the notion of
playing soccer has become a game of diminishing
returns only justified by skyrocketing salaries and
the inability to let go. Both are the waning totems of
their national teams. Both have inspired awe bordering
on the supernatural from fans and foes alike.

And both looked like the faulty deities they are in
the quarterfinal match between Brazil and France
today, though each in different ways. Zidane played
the match like a brainy commando leading his last
charge, pulling out every jive, shimmy, tic, and
gadget imaginable to keep the ball bouncing between
the men in white and away from the Brazilians. Henry
landed the deciding blow, but the chemistry of the
selecao fizzled as France threaded long strings of
passes through the increasingly flustered Brazilians.
The maestro was Zidane, the man who truly is playing
like the cerebral genius down to his last card on each

"Sorry, I can't hear you. Did you say I was past it?"

Ronaldo played a game he likely wants back. With the
midfield eaten alive by the Bleus, Ronaldo spent the
majority of the match half-heartedly challenging
Barthez's outlet balls and hoping for quality chances.
When he got them--and there were by our count two good
ones--he blew them, heading one errantly away and
flaking completely on another.

The header's excusable, but the flake-out was not. Any
doubt that something about the French mode of playing
soccer takes Cartesian logic and cuts the extravagant
flow of Brazilian game into easily handled variables
to analyze, solve, and dispose of needs to rewind game
tape and examine Ronaldo's flop in the box late in the
second half. Given a golden chance to score and lacing
his way through the heart of the French defense,
Ronaldo took a dive rather than attempt to keep
possession and blow a freaky, Phenomenal shot past
goal. This is the same Ronaldo who has regularly made
the task of blowing past two defenders and goalies
seem a given, and in the moment of truth he dove for a
penalty rather than fight for possession and the shot.
Flustered and frustrated, Ronaldo reverted to '98 form
and flaked, a performance setting the stage for
Ronaldo's dramatic Zidane/Pele moment in four years
provided he can lay off the steak and champagne and
appear in top form in South Africa minus the fifteen
pounds of privilege he carried into Germany.

Why didn't he do what he did against Ghana?

Zidane moves on now, stretching time indefinite one
match further into the future. France suddenly looks
three thousand times more likely a contender than they
did in qualifying, due in large part to the nimble
feet and intellect of Zidane. The air of the fatal,
for us, came in watching what someone get what
everyone wants and everyone dreads all happening in
the same match. Given all the talent that could be
squeezed into a single body, Ronaldo still failed
under the watchful eyes of millions, a reminder that
failure is not an aberration but a constant, even for
those who are capable of the incomprehensible and

Zidane's visual lesson is a different but no less
profound one. Playing against the clock of mortality,
age, and the unavoidable, performed brilliantly and
earned just one more chance before his soccer death.
Zidane may be the smartest player we've ever seen, but
brains don't adequately justify the hero-worship. In
the end Zidane is playing his best against a deadline
he can't control and doing so with a controlled,
precise passion visible to anyone with even the most
casual eye for the game.

Still a giant at 34.

It's beauty incarnate. It's every hackneyed metaphor
relating sports and the tenuous drawing of breath
called life. It's the heaping of abstract nouns like
courage, dignity, and grace that don't cover the fact
and the image itself. We'd all like to play for one
more game and go on with flair. For today, Zinedine
Zidane got to do that, and there's an ineffable, teary
beauty to it that everything we've spilled out in this
column doesn't come close to delineating.

No, Zizou. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Um, yeah, that pretty much sums up everything I've ever wanted to say. Damn you Orson, damn your briliance.

Kanu said...

Great writeup Swindle.

The other interesting thing about ZZ10 and R9 is that they were both signed by Real Madrid, ushering in the "Galatico" era at Real Madrid, and have been teammates for a few years there.