An essay: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait – an enquiry into football and film

The following is my third year visual culture essay as it was handed in and marked. It is unchanged apart from the omission of images for copyright reasons. The image captions remain, linking to the bibliography. As with all university assignments, I was working with a word limit therefore the essay concludes with a series of points which I would have picked up on had constraints allowed. In the future I may extend this essay but for now please read and leave any comments you wish to make. 

“The whole knowledge of the human soul passes through a football field.” – Albert Camus1

Albert Camus was a French-Algerian author and philosopher and it seems somewhat fitting, albeit a coincidence resulting from my research, that I start with the above quote as I go on to explore a film about another French-Algerian, Zinedine Zidane.

The 2006 film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (henceforth referred to as simply Zidane) by artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno focuses on ninety minutes of football in 2005 from the perspective of Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane. Seventeen high end cameras and microphones follow Zidane for the duration of the match – the subject at work. The film was originally premiered as a feature film at Cannes in 2006. It has however been displayed in galleries, cinemas and released for home DVD.

2 Still from Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

I will proceed with the following questions in mind; how is the medium of film appropriate to this subject matter? How does Zidane cross the boundaries of football, film and art through its subject, form and subtext? Is it confined solely to these contexts or does it have a further significance?

Football is a far-reaching global preoccupation and obsession as well as a multi-billion pound industry being broadcast to billions on television – film is therefore the most natural medium in which to capture the portrait of a global superstar and leader in his field. As Philippe Parreno said, the idea was to “make a feature film which follows the main protagonist of a story, without telling the story.”3

“Photography and film correspond to the attempts in our time to depict the face of humanity on the scale of time. Our lives take place within a protocol of time. It was for this reason in particular that we chose to create a portrait using cameras instead of canvas or paper. While drawing and painting create two-dimensional works, a portrait on film inexorably becomes a multidimensional work. […] You see things in this film you never see on TV, like his hands, his gestures. That comes from painting techniques: watching out for gestures, moving fingers. These things offer us information about a person.”4 – Douglas Gordon

For the purposes of this enquiry I must specify that, although I will examine the form (film) of this work, I will be considering it within an art context – a portrait, as the full title suggests, created by two artists. As the subject matter is inextricably linked to football, I will also be considering it in this context. I will make various comparisons to other artistic works (including film and other media) but will not be exploring the relationship of fictional football film works such as Bend it Like Beckham, The Damned United (adapted from a book so liberally adapted from fact, as numerous libel settlements will verify, it is here considered fiction), Looking for Eric, any “football hooligan” film or the Goal franchise.

The film follows the story of one football match between Real Madrid and Villareal on April 23rd 2005. It is a match no more important or consequential than any other league game. The film is a portrait of a man in his element – at work. Ceaselessly focussed, his face etched with intense concentration and a brooding intensity for the entirety, Zinedine Zidane is the subject of this portrait. The seventeen high quality cameras operated by leading cameramen are trained on Zidane throughout the ninety minute duration of the match. The film is edited to incorporate brief clips of Spanish television coverage and wide angle shots of Real Madrid’s impressive Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Though widely regarded as the focal point of this Real Madrid team, Zidane touches the ball for no more than a few of the ninety minutes – the rest is waiting, building suspense, partly thanks to the stirring, ambient soundtrack by Mogwai. The close focussing of both camera and microphone drags the viewer into this experience, picking up on every bead of sweat that forms on Zidane’s face, every heavy breath and every footstep. When Zidane does touch the ball or when he smiles (just once) during the game or shares his disgust at the referee, it provides a moment of great drama – a brief glimpse a bit deeper into the man. Although there is no doubt Zidane is deeply engaged with the match throughout, the moments where he is directly involved are so few that each one appears as if deliberately juxtaposed with the isolated – possibly even lonely – figure Zidane cuts. A sight which seems strangely exaggerated when he is seen against a background of thousands of supporters inside the stadium.

Subtitles accompany the film sporadically, Zidane’s thoughts on growing up and playing football, allowing a closer look into his self. At half time the film cuts to other events on this day “like any other”, news reels and stories from around the world. The camera pauses on a war-torn scene in Najaf, Iraq where a boy wears a Zidane replica shirt. Douglas Gordon described the piece as “an exercise in solitude”5, a theme so obvious in the film yet so in contrast to the obvious far-reaching impact of the man at the focus of it.

To explore Zidane in more depth we must consider denotation and connotation in the film. John Gill, in writing the introduction for the Offside! Contemporary Artists and Football exhibition catalogue, described the works as “identifying the football stadium as an arena for the public display of national aspirations and anxieties, and the players as focuses of individual and national fantasy.”6 Despite this exhibition coming a decade before Zidane, the description could be equally appropriate.

Edward Buscombe describes the importance of connotation in Football on Television, albeit with slightly out-dated references, the implications are still relevant today. “We see Cruyff playing for Holland scoring a goal; and each of these terms ‘Cruyff’, ‘Holland’ and ‘goal’ carries a heavy load of meaning. […] there is virtually never denotation without connotation; because television must use pictures of reality, rather than arbitrary signs to represent it, it has no means of signifying just ‘a man is kicking a ball’. It must show some man in particular, and any particular man will have immediate connotations.”7 Admittedly there is somewhat of a leap between the mediums of television and film, however I would argue there is an obvious relevance between the two when approaching the subject matter of football as in Zidane.

The white shirts we see throughout Zidane signify the player’s team, Real Madrid. Here the connotations are not just arguably the world’s most famous and successful football team who at the time were exercising all their financial power to assemble a team of ‘galacticos’ of which Zidane was the focal point, but also the cultural and political importance of Madrid – the country’s capital and centre of political dominance for better or worse throughout recent history. The significance of Madrid’s role in the shaping of Spanish culture and politics, not least the history of right wing politics which put the city and the club at odds with provincial rivals, cannot be ignored. This creates an interesting contrast when considering the connotations of the man, Zidane.

Hugh Dauncey and Douglas Morrey state, in their essay Quiet Contradictions of Celebrity, that “the French soccer-player Zinedine Zidane is an emblematic sport star whose celebrity persona nevertheless remains opaque and open to debate. As a French citizen of Algerian origin, Zidane has come to embody many current French concerns over the integration of ethnic minorities and has, particularly since the World Cup Finals of 1998 and 2006, been subjected to intense scrutiny and interpretation. Despite such attention, however, he remains quietly inscrutable, the contradicting claims on his identity and celebrity persona compounding his own lack of self-reflection in a complex negotiation of significance. Assessing Zidane through the interlinkages of his hybrid identity, ethnicity, masculinity, morality and nationality reveals how he and his celebrity persona struggle to establish coherent or consistent meaning.”8

Zinedine Zidane “has become a blank canvas on which the French media has played out the nation’s preoccupation with race and national identity,”9 “the saviour of French honour in football […] a figure symbolic of the successful integration of children from immigrant families, an icon as the idealised image of a multicultural France.”10

Taking this into account reveals an interesting dynamic to Zidane, the conflict (“football is war” – Rinus Michels11) between the agency of the man and the context in which he acts. The social, cultural and political importance of a sport such as football is undeniable and, through engaging with us in an art/film context, Zidane highlights the significant role Zinedine Zidane plays in a wider cultural context.

A different conflict that can be picked up within Zidane is the contrast between the personas of the subject and his then team-mate, David Beckham. Undeniably a talented footballer, Beckham is also a global brand – even more recognisable than Zidane. His acquisition by Madrid was one that gave equal weighting to marketability and footballing prowess. Numerous team-mates are seen throughout the film but we see a relatively considerable amount of Beckham. His familiarly flamboyant appearance provides a ground to which the artists place the figure of Zidane as having a greater than superficial significance.

For Zidane to work it needs to stand up in a footballing context as well as an artistic context, therefore the immediate accessibility of film seems appropriate. We should consider both football fans and those with an interest in art as consumers. For this work to be consumed it must be available to all and it is, having been shown in cinemas, art galleries, television and for home entertainment.

Gordon and Parreno’s piece is sold on DVD on high streets and in supermarkets across Europe. Bearing in mind this film may not have been so widely distributed had it not been for the head-butting incident that proved to be his final act as a player in the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final, it says something (about celebrity culture as well as the marketability of film and Zidane himself) that this film extends his celebrity image. The beautiful filming and editing, the glossy finish to this piece, may be considered suitable for Zidane’s celebrity image. This suggests a cooperation or collaboration – an almost symbiotic relationship between film and brand/man – each serving the other.

From a purely pragmatic, commercial viewpoint the medium of film (and the ability to mass reproduce) makes Zidane appropriately accessible when considering a football based market. Considering the artists’ intentions and the context in which this was released, the film is successful in its tapping into the market for footballing brands and the subject as a commodity (21st century celebrity-obsessed culture). There is therefore an argument that a film such as Zidane serves more those brands than it does to cross the boundaries between football, film and art though, as in my above argument, I disregard any debate as to the commercial success and wider appeal having an effect, in either direction, on the integrity of the piece as a work of art.

Progressing from the previous point, it should also be noted that the mediation of images in this is an extremely important factor. The editing of Zidane is so detached from conventional football broadcasting, not only because it omits the rest of the match (and the associated codes) and the traditional narrative focus around the ball but also because the film is cut in a way to allow us, the audience, only a certain purchase on the events unfolding. Zidane is sent off at the end of the film and this moment is one of confusion, the view obscured by players and quick cuts between camera angles. It is only after when we realise what has happened and the shock really hits. In a similar way, the coverage of Zidane’s sending off in the 2006 final was only covered through replays. The Frenchman’s head-butt on Italian defender Marco Materazzi occurred out of frame on the original broadcast. Again confusion led to shock as the truth revealed itself through television replays – immediately becoming a major plot point in the television narrative. This is highlighted in Harun Farocki’s video installation Deep Play (2007), which combines various videos and imagery relating to the final match, where the original broadcast plays alongside other graphics and the voice of the director controlling the broadcast. Seemingly fittingly, one of the subtitled quotes in Zidane is “The game, the event, is not necessarily experienced or remembered in ‘real time’.  My memories of games and events are fragmented.”12

13 Photograph of Harun Farocki’s Deep Play (2007)

Even at football matches, the narrative can be driven by big screen replays and stadium announcements – all of which command a significant amount of the audience’s attention. It could be suggested therefore that the art of football, in this modern age, is not solely that of the 22 men playing on the field but that of the mediator – the directors and producers – responsible for the organisation of live television broadcasts. In Zidane, while the artistry of the player’s natural elegance and talent is served to us almost-but-not-quite tangibly through the hi-tech cameras, it comes through the mediation of the artists, Gordon and Parreno. At the start of Zidane, we see the kick off on a television screen, the picture pixelating as the camera zooms in. As is pointed out in the essay Short Cuts by Paul Myerscough “the galáctico, like any modern celebrity, is available to us only through his mediation, and the more pervasive his image, the more frustratedly we recognise that he remains finally opaque, unreachable.”14

The above evidence suggests that the relationship between film (including television broadcast) and football is one that, in the conventional way of viewing (and in that of Zidane), the real creative direction is the responsibility of the director (or artist) as much as it is of the players on the field. Though the players make all the choices in the game, it is the director of broadcast or the film that forges these into a narrative for the audience. Through the abandonment of traditional broadcast methods, Gordon and Parreno are able to manipulate the cultural codes the audience is subject to, picking and choosing imagery to communicate.

In order to progress this enquiry and give some additional to context I should cite Hellmuth Costard’s 1971 film Fußball wie noch (Football as never before). Shot on eight 16mm film cameras, it follows the late George Best in a match for Manchester United. Though it is unknown how in depth Gordon and Parreno looked at this work, it is an obvious point of reference for Zidane.

15 Still from Fußball wie noch (Football as never before) (1971) by Hellmuth Costard

When looking at film that claims to be a portrait, we must look closer at films within a similar context and for signs or examples of why or how it is a portrait. With the film focussing so intensely on a single person themes of voyeurism and gaze must be considered, in particular the possibility of the sexualisation of the subject. I believe, though there may be certain aspects of Zidane which could be interpreted this way, it is not either implicitly or explicitly at all sexually motivated and though this may be evident in related films, it is not the intention of Gordon and Parreno in the creation of Zidane.

Sam Taylor-Wood’s David (2004), a homage to Warhol’s Sleep, depicts a sleeping David Beckham, bare armed and chested. Openly referencing a history of sleeping nudes in art, this work comes from a slightly different angle – through a female gaze. It is through the eyes of a woman, seeing Beckham not for his sporting ability as in Zidane, but for his beauty. As art writer and football fanatic, Jennifer Doyle, wrote in Frieze magazine, “lest we miss the homoerotic subtext of football art (and football culture)”16 as she goes on to highlight an extended section of Costard’s film focussing on George Best looking directly into the camera with an intimate gaze. All three films could be considered an artistic examination of the human (male) form inextricably linked to what (football) “is a deeply sentimental space of male intimacy.”17 The themes of voyeurism and gaze are unavoidable in all three films while Fußball wie noch and David are more so, if not totally, explicit. While Zidane maintains some distance or boundary between subject and audience, however tantalising, Taylor-Wood breaks this down further in David. The camera is positioned so close to Beckham that it’s as if the viewer is sharing the bed with him – the intimacy and sexuality implied clearly obvious. Costard, however, was limited by technological constraints and therefore relied on mostly wider angle shots where the full figure of Best is in frame. Despite this distancing between audience and subject it did not stop Costard from creating something which does allude to a more sexual admiration, if not objectification, of the subject. There are parts of Fußball wie noch where the camera focuses on the subject’s hair or legs or crotch in a very different way to the close-ups used in Zidane.

18 Photograph of Sam Taylor-Wood’s David (2004)

Through examining the above evidence of relevant films, I think it is fair to conclude that, despite Doyle’s claims of a homoerotic subtext, this is not intended in Zidane. Whereas David, seems to focus upon a desire that cannot be acted on and Fußball wie noch, while sharing similarities with Zidane, does suggest some form of sexualisation (intentional or otherwise) of the notorious playboy, George Best, Zidane has a less explicit purpose. It is portraying the subject in his element, performing his craft in which he is one of, if not the, best in the world. The admiration is platonic. To her credit Doyle does acknowledge this when she says that “Gordon and Parreno’s film would have had an entirely different tone had they chosen an exuberant or openly flirtatious subject. […]David Beckham’s audience is packed with fewer Marxist art critics (who prefer their subjects miserable) and with more women and gay men – as was the case for Sam Taylor-Wood’s video.”19

To conclude, Zidane utilises the medium of film to great effect. Its accessibility and marketability make it well suited to a football context while retaining enough artistic direction and creativity to keep it firmly placed, primarily in an art context. It is inexorably linked to football through the subject matter and Gordon and Parreno embrace this. The HD cameras providing the sheen and gloss deserving of one of the world’s greatest ever footballers. It is in every way a “21st century portrait”, calling for “a ‘tactile’ relation to the image”20 and has been described as a “perception-expanding event … where identities, individual and collective, appear in a state of flux.”21 The cinematography highlights the subject’s majesty and fallibility, his genius and his flaws. We bear witness to his every movement and tick and are allowed to know so much before being reminded how intangible the subject is – through the editing of the film as well as through the subject’s actions and enigmatic persona.

It bridges the gap between art, film and football perfectly. It shows us a pure form of football/art – the man in motion, isolated in the midst of over 80 000 people and an even greater global television audience of which we are reminded. Conflicts run parallel throughout – pure footballing beauty vs. the mediated image of broadcast and film, the cultural and political connotations of the man vs. those of his employer, the enigmatic superstar icon vs. his adoring global fan base.

A wider cultural and social interpretation of Zidane would require more research into various film theories and possible relationships to footballing philosophies and cultures (Brilliant Orange by David Winner), political and social aspects such as participation and the broadcast of images – specifically football (Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Terrorism) and a more in depth look at Dauncey and Morrey’s Quiet Contradictions of Celebrity.

Had constraints allowed, I would have looked at the film Substitute by French footballer Vikash Dhorasoo – a video diary, filmed on Super 8mm, of his time in the 2006 France World Cup squad. Limited mostly to the substitutes’ bench, Dhorasoo’s only playing time was as a substitute for Zidane – something which prompted boos from the French supporters. The film, coinciding with the release of Zidane, serves as almost the antithesis to Gordon and Parreno’s film – grainy 8mm film instead of the HD gloss, a dejected subject filming himself as opposed to the world superstar at the centre of attention. It seems a suitably relevant extension to the enquiry.

I started with a quote by Albert Camus, “The whole knowledge of the human soul passes through a football field.” This certainly seems relevant to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait – our whole knowledge, however limited, of Zinedine Zidane comes through his actions on the football field. The portrait ‘painted’ by Gordon and Parreno is that of a man who transcends multiple contexts; football, art, culture, politics, ethnicity, identity, masculinity, morality, commerce.

“Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all.” – Zinedine Zidane22

23 Still from Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait



7 – Buscombe, E. ed. Football on Television (1975) London: British Film Institute

10 – Guggeis, K. ed. Football One Game – Many Worlds (2006) Munich: Arnoldsche

6 – Wilcox, T. ed. Offside! Contemporary Artists and Football (1996) Manchester: Manchester City Art Galleries and the Institute of Visual Arts

11 – Winner, D. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football (2000) London: Bloomsbury


15 – Fußball wie noch nie (1971) [DVD] Kinowelt Home Entertainment

2, 12, 22, 23 –Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) [DVD] Universal Pictures Video


8, 9 – Dauncey, H. & Morrey, D. 2008 Quiet Contradictions of Celebrity. International Journal of Cultural Studies, [e-journal] 11(3) Abstract only. Available through: Sage Journals Online [Accessed on 3rd January 2011]


16, 17, 19 – Doyle, J. 2008 Fever Pitch Available at: <> [Accessed on 3rd January 2011]

13Farocki, H. 2007 Deep Play [digital image] Available at: <> [Accessed on 3rd January 2011]

3, 5 –Hill, D. 2007 ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’, by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno Available at: <> [Accessed on 3rd January 2011]

20, 21 – Ling, A. 2010 Screen Theorizing Today: A Celebration of Screen’s Fiftieth Anniversary edited by Annette Kuhn Available at: <> [Accessed on 3rd January 2011]

14 – Myerscough, P. 2006 Short Cuts Available at: <> [Accessed on 3rd January 2011]

18 – Taylor-Wood, S. 2004 David [digital image] Available at: <> [Accessed on 3rd January 2011]

4 – 2009 Van Abbemuseum Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait Available at: <> [Accessed on 3rd January 2011]

1 – Vaske, H. 2007 The Art of Football Available at: <> [Accessed on 3rd January 2011)

Tim Hodge

Tim Hodge

Tim Hodge lives and works in Sydney. He specialises in web content including SEO and social media. He also writes about craft beer, art, culture and football.

Feel free to contact him on Twitter @timothyhodge, Google+ and LinkedIn.
Tim Hodge

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I'm Tim, a human being living in Sydney, Australia. I spend a lot of time despairing over Leeds United and the rest of it writing, making/looking at art, reading, watching films and dabbling in SEO, social media and content marketing.
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