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Not a gentle kind of Zen

by Ed Smith

WHAT is the ultimate quality in a sportsman? Is it athleticism or skill? Maybe it is courage, self-belief or the ability to seize the moment? Perhaps there is something greater still that sets apart the very best: the ability to create the illusion of complicity. Great players, at their peak, sometimes exert such a mastery over opponents that they appear complicit. They reduce usually aggressive competitors to seeming like mere accomplices; the great man is the puppet-master, the feisty opponent just a puppet. Simon Barnes, in his insightful new book The Meaning of Sport, calls this gift ‘Federer’, in honour of the elegant Swiss tennis genius.

For an intimate study of ‘Federer’ at work, watch the film Zidane – a 21st Century Portrait. I had approached the film with some trepidation as I didn’t expect to be much bothered about a real-time replay of the match between Real Madrid and Villarreal on 23rd April 2005.

How wrong I was. It is the best insight into the mind and movement of a great sportsman I have ever experienced in any medium. Seventeen synchronized cameras focused exclusively on Zidane throughout the match. The film, which follows the first kick to the last, takes us not only onto the pitch, but also into the imaginative world of a great player in the final chapter of his career.

Zidane does up his socks; he kicks his toes into the turf like Jimmy Connors used to at Wimbledon; he wipes sweat from face; he scarcely speaks; he doesn’t smile for the first hour. His only words in the first half are to the referee, immediately after the opposition have been awarded a penalty and scored. “You should be ashamed of yourself”, Zidane says very quietly and with no emotion. In case the referee missed it, he repeats, “You should be ashamed of yourself”.

It is everyday, unglamorous and humdrum. What then, makes it so compelling? The answer is Zidane himself. I doubt the film would work if it featured any other footballer. But Zidane’s psychological intensity carries the piece.

He has a completely natural type of focus – there is no posturing, attention-seeking or affected team-spiritedness. We all know that Zidane has mastered economy of movement and clarity of thought, but here he is shown also to possess a pared-down control of emotional stimulus. ‘Focus’ and ‘concentrate’ are the two commonest sporting clichés. But rarely does anyone add that you cannot focus and concentrate on everything. The art is what you leave out.

Zidane leaves out almost everything. His detachment is on an epic scale – that is what adds fire to his few, but decisive, moments of intervention. With Real Madrid 1-0 down, Zidane makes a mesmerizing run and sets up the perfect cross for his team-mate to head into the goal. But our view is only of Zidane – and he is expressionless as the goal is scored. It is not fake coolness. Instead, it is the genuine disinterestedness of the Zen master. He is doing his job so well, there is not space to worry about whether other people are also doing theirs.

Zidane’s ‘Federer’-quality runs through the film. Zidane is often almost still, barely trotting around. When he moves, it is for a reason – in his own mind, it will be a decisive move. His opponents, you feel, can sense the power of Zidane’s imaginative grasp. It is that which creates the illusion of complicity.

Zidane has something else, too. Where Federer behaves as if a scrap would be somehow beneath him, Zidane combines calmness with simmering street-wise aggression. There is a darkness to his concentration – he would be just fine if things got nasty, in fact he might relish it. He has ‘Federer’ plus violence. His is not a gentle kind of zen.

With extraordinary prescience, the film ends with Zidane playing beautiful football but becoming enveloped by red mist. He is sent off. A year and a bit later, on a still bigger stage, again having defined the contest, the same thing would happen to him in the World Cup Final.

Zidane leaves the field, and this film, with no remorse and little emotion. Things are still just as they are in Zidane’s world. Perhaps an artificial framework of morality might obscure the truth of his athletic vision. What can we make of that? How should we weigh it in the balance? But that is the language of columnists and writers, not of Federer and Zidane.

English cricketer Ed Smith is captain of Middlesex CCC.

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