Zinedine Zidane and the touch of magic realism

Trinankur Banerjee paints a palette of blue and yellow as he transcends us to the midfield where football’s magician creates poetry with his passes.

On 10th July 1890, Vincent Van Gogh completed his fabled last painting- Wheatfield with Crows.

On 1st July 2006, Zinedine Zidane played against a Brazil side that  was arguably one of the greatest Brazil teams to be ever fielded in the last two decades and played like there was no tomorrow. In a game which is now part of the football folklore, it was he who, by what Aristotle would call “Deux Machina”, provided the assist in the end for the lone goal that decided the match.

On 29th July 1890, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself to death.

On 9th July 2006, 10 minutes away from the completion of extra-time, Zinedine Zidane infamously “headbutted” Marco Materazzi of Italy, resulting in a sending-off that would also end France’s hopes of winning the World Cup. As Zidane sauntered past the World Cup captured by a photographic frame, it still remains one of football’s most melancholic, unforgettable moments, moments when football has come closest to magic realism.

Zinedine Zidane dancing through Brazilian Defense
Zinedine Zidane dancing through Brazilian Defense

Sid Lowe once famously   remarked, “He would produce one or two pieces of skill that would just make everybody kinda ‘ooh!’”Zinedine Zidane was at his proverbial glorious sunset. At 34, he had come out of retirement for one last time to serve his country in the 2006 world cup. But I would skip the details here since I am not a man of facts, and I would fast forward the proceedings to a single match, which is as sublime as the brush strokes of an eccentric master, and as melancholic as Ingrid Bergman’s face in Casablanca for a Brazil fan like me. The match was the quarter-final, a meet written in the stars since the start of the tournament. It was Brazil v/s France, Poetry v/s Grit. It was a match that boasted 6 Ballon d’Or winners in a Brazil side if you consider Kaka who would win it in the immediate future. On the other side, among some old warriors and new soldiers, there was Zinedine Zidane.

Goalkeepers, Defenders, Strikers- they all have their pre-decided roles.  But Midfielder is surely an ambiguous term. Apart from the fact that they belong to the central portion of the field, not much is  revealed by their designation. I have often found, whenever a value is not added to an object, it immediately  becomes the most abstract and at times, poetic. It is in these moments that object becomes art, it is by these midfielders that football’s beauty is consecrated. Xavi is like Cezanne – small brushstrokes that create a complex maze of passes on the lush green. Riquelme is like Gauguin- the eccentric, the genius, the outcast, full of idiosyncracies. Scholes is like Renoir- the classical, a painter of the painters. But, Zidane, Zidane is Van Gogh- the indescribable. Like Sid Lowe remarked, you can only gasp at him rather than analyze his movement.

Why this match? Why not the goal he scored in the Champions League final or his performance in the Euro 2000? The goal, for me, was the brush stroke that creates the explosions in the sky of Van Gogh’s Starry night. It was a moment- a moment that would undo all other moments, a brush stroke from whose tip the history of painting was rewritten. But, the match was his last great act, a “fiendfyre”, an apocalyptic dance, a performance that would redefine football in a singular manner.  To put it simply and to put a stopcock to my emotional overflow, it was Zidane’s “Wheatfield with Crows”.

Wheatfield with Crows is a July 1890 painting by Vincent van Gogh
Wheatfield with Crows is a July 1890 painting by Vincent van Gogh

If you carefully observe and, observe you should, if you haven’t already, the aforementioned painting, you will see that it is almost effortless. The brush strokes have a sense of madness in them, but the madness is only nearing stoicism. Unlike starry nights, where the brush moves over the canvas with care, it is here Van Gogh is at his careless best. The artist knows that his hands will take him where his madness wants to reach – it reaches a transcendental nature where you cannot define its effect by worldly language. I would argue, similar is the case with Zidane.

In the very beginning of the match, Zidane provides something that, as I write now, still gives me shivers. His dodge that shreds Kaka and Ze Roberto into ribbons is almost like the crows that are produced with mere dabs of the brush. Like the crows in the picture that fly off beyond the beholder’s contemplation, it is this that sets the tone of what would unfold in the next 90 minutes. The assist, for me, was the most banal thing that Zidane provided in the entire match. There was so much poetry, so much fluid motion in the rest of it that it seems like a chance line from Wordsworth in the midst of a glittering Neruda.

Skip a few minutes, around 18 minutes, another brush stroke. This time it’s the sky, a notch of blue that emanates from the “les bleus” as Zidane, surrounded by yellow shirts, chips the ball over their head for a through ball to Sagnol.

But, what would it be that, as the clichés say, takes your breath away? What would it be, when a painting destroys meanings and words, when football transcends its banners, songs and elegies? What would you give to witness that?

The yellow strokes that conjure the wheat field are of a similar sort. Restless as they are in the summer breeze of Amsterdam, restless is the brush that storms through the canvas, for the artist knows that his days are numbered and his possibility is infinite. So little time, so much to do- what could an artist do but to set newer heights?

In the 43rd minute, when Zidane took the ball near the halfway line, he brings Ronaldo down to his mercy, makes  Gilberto Silva look a fool and threads a pass through two Brazil players for Henry. In a few moments, the seemingly nothing etched itself on time, like his yellows on his canvas. Like he would do again when he taps the ball to loop it over Ronaldo, and effortlessly heads it to a fellow teammate. Or like he would  flummox Gilberto Silva  once again, with a 360 that football gods would cite later in the holy grail of football.

But what about the roads that bifurcate through the patches of yellow as a streak of brown, what about it? What about the 27th minute when Zidane would baffle Kaka with his ball control or leave one of the greatest right backs in football history, clueless and numb with a flick? Of those I shall narrate later, for all secrets cannot be revealed, and not all secrets have meaning. The midfield maestros were painters in their own accord. The lush green canvas is prepared every single day with water so that with their boots, they can leave marks, strokes and caresses on that round-shaped heart- they can be as lethal as the dagger of Norman Bates and as beautiful as Louis Armstrong’s opening of La vie en rose. You can construct your own stories- about a Xavi (Or Cezanne?) in Camp Nou against Real Madrid during the autumn breezes of 2010, or a  Paul Scholes masterpiece against Arsenal. But, as all hopeless romantics do, I would go back to the one who invokes as much pain as beauty itself, who self-immolated into ashes in the end, whose final act has been often quoted as suicidal. He is Zinedine Yazid  Zidane – the Vincent Van Gogh of Football.