‘Zidane’s Melancholy is My Melancholy’

It became loudly apparent to me Saturday as I watched the England vs. USA World Cup game with a room full of usually quiet 

— By | June 14, 2010

'Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait', by Douglas Gordon

It became loudly apparent to me Saturday as I watched the England vs. USA World Cup game with a room full of usually quiet and gentle pacifist intellectuals that we all need, once in awhile, to let loose our animal selves. People got drunk; popcorn was thrown; rude epithets, insults, threats bandied; it was a little bit like a controlled reenactment of the Revolutionary War.

I’ve been thinking about sports a lot. After watching the Winter Olympics this year it struck me that moments in sports are like so charged and fertile with meaning I don’t know why more writers don’t write about it. Athletic competition takes the most essential human desires and boils it down to something so straight-forward and concrete. That is, we all want to conquer, take from the other, destroy for glory and fame, and when we fall short it’s tragic. (Read: Barthes “The Tour de France as Epic”). Life is really like one epic sports game that goes on and on until you die.

Maybe because it is so like war & a metaphor for surviving, athletic competitions often have an element of madness that is so beautiful and awe-inspiring in context but terrible to witness out of context. Desperation, exhaustion, anger, loss of control: these represent our physical limits. To see athletes going through these states is grimace+cringeworthy yet strangely life-affirming.

I’m thinking about cross country skiers who throw up after races from sheer exertion. Iron Man competitors whose bodies give out, sphincter muscles and all, and must crawl towards the finish line. Soccer players who, in a moment of tired frustration decide to headbutt a member of the opposing team.

Most likely, if you remember anything about the 2006 World Cup it it’s French soccer star Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt. Jean-Philippe Toussaint writes a lovely piece called “La Melancholie de Zidane” that carefully dissects that incomprehensible, bewildering moment in soccer history. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it was to be Zidane’s last game (ever) before he would retire. Italian Marco Materazzi supposedly said some things to piss him off and Zidane headbutted him–in the chest.

Toussaint suggests that perhaps Zidane, athlete-as-artist, is so preoccupied with finding “la Forme” that he doesn’t know how to properly close off his career. For an athlete, to not play is like accepting a certain kind of death. He can’t score, he feels ambivalent, he doesn’t want to quit but he no longer wants to play. But to headbutt another player, that at least leaves some options alive, open. “Incapable de marquer un but, il marquera les esprits.”

Toussaint’s piece isn’t just about the melancholy of one soccer player, it’s a melancholy we all experience. “Zidane’s melancholy is my melancholy, I know it, I’ve nourished it, I feel it deeply,” Toussaint writes. “Something in us turns against us.” How do we manage life, legacy, form? Perhaps we all feel the melancholy because perfect form will always be unattainable and the chances to it mathematically impossible. And after acknowledging that, will life still be meaningful and worth living?

Another post about soccer and video art—  “Juergen Teller filmed himself watching the 2002 World Cup final (Germany lost 2–0 to Brazil). Eyes on the television set, he twists and shouts, stewing with bullish rage. He later said that this film was ‘the most disturbing thing’ he’d ever seen.”


5 Responses to ‘Zidane’s Melancholy is My Melancholy’

  1. Jose-Luis Moctezuma on June 17, 2010 at 8:54 am

    Thanks for bringing up the Toussaint piece. Zidane’s “imp of the perverse” lashed out in the final dying minutes. Remarkable to think that the greatest player of our generation — in my opinion on par with Maradona and Pele — in search of perfect form, decides to abort it by committing an act of perfect folly. Sometimes misdemeanor can be a sublime act if it has “la forme” in mind as its end — sometimes it can be an act of such deliberate imperfection that it channels a supreme and inexplicable absurdity, will purposefully evade rationalization, indeed an act that renders Form itself through its inverse. Zidane’s “in praise of folly”.

    Eduardo Galeano in his book Football in Sun and Shade describes the goalkeeper as the true melancholy one: “They say that where [the goalkeeper] treads the grass stops growing. He is a solitary. Condemned to watch the game from afar. Unable to move from the goal he awaits alone, between the sticks, the firing squad. Once he dressed in black like the referee. But now the referee no longer dresses up like a raven, and the goalkeeper consoles his solitude in a fantasy of colors. He doesn’t make goals: he tries to prevent them. The goal, football’s celebration: the goal scorer makes happiness, but the goalkeeper, the spoilsport, unmakes it.”

  2. Anelise Chen on June 18, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    That passage about the goalkeeper is so true. I was just thinking about it today while watching the US/Slovenia game…god, they must carry so much guilt!

    And what’s this bringing the goalkeeper’s girlfriend into it?

  3. Jose-Luis Moctezuma on June 21, 2010 at 1:29 am

    Well, the defeat to Switzerland left the Spanish reeling and the local media incredulous: leaving ample room for superstition to take hold. Casillas’ squeeze (a television reporter) stood only meters away behind Casillas the entire time during the game, and folks seem to think his bad form in the moments that lead to the Switzerland goal can be attributed to her direct physical presence. To top it off, straight after the defeat, she herself is sent to interview her boyfriend and ask him on live television to explain why he messed up.

    There’s an unspoken rule, apparently, that pro-level players faced with a strenuous competition should go through monkish rituals and regulations (no sex, no liquor, no contact with family members, sleep curfews, strict diet, “no playstation use, no room service, no walking around in shorts and flip-flops“) so as to ensure top flight performance. Fabio Capello, coach of the WC England squad, enforced similar restrictions on the English players. But as can be seen from England’s recent performances, such restrictions are probably superfluous. Spain’s real problems are certainly not girlfriend-related, and Casillas was in my opinion not responsible for the goal nor for the defeat in general; Spain’s problems are elsewhere, and tonight they’ll have the chance to reassert themselves.

  4. Jason Ng on June 21, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Hmm, I’d beg to differ on the whole not enough serious writers taking on sports. The Times Play mag has had a lot of great pieces, including the Federer/DFW one (a better combination of writer and subject has never been concocted) and (because you mentioned ultra marathoners) this profile about Jure Robic. Then there’s McPhee on whatever he writes about (Wimbledon, golf, lacrosse, Bill Bradley), Halberstam on basketball, George Plimpton in Paper Lion, Gay Talese on Joe Dimaggio, Hunter S Thompson on anything, Updike/Delillo/Wolfe/other old white American men on baseball… More recently, this Usain Bolt profile in Esquire, Michael Lewis, Keith Gessen on a hockey goon (which is itself a take on a bunch of article on Joe Kocur). But otherwise, agreed, sports makes for good writing and a stand-in for life.

    Now looking at the list I’ve just provided, I’m kinda weirded about by how I can think of any great female sportswriting (Rebecca Mead did a piece on Shaquille O’Neal a few years back, but that’s all I got; I’m hoping this is a momentary lapse). Is this another Larry Summers case of girls just ain’t got it in them (to write about civilized war)?

  5. Anelise Chen on June 30, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Hey Jason,
    Thanks for the impressive reading list! I really have a lot of stuff to look forward to. It’s awesome. I’ve been obsessed w/ Jure Robic for awhile, am still waiting on Bicycle Dreams to see that mailbox punching footage. (Did you hear he won–again?) And just as clarification I wasn’t saying that no writers have written about sports, just that given the incredible potential all writers should be writing about it all the time…was being carelessly hyperbolic of course.

    To address your second comment, the lack of female sportswriters doesn’t necessarily point to some innate sexual difference re Larry Summers, but rather to a narrow-mindedness in most people to see beyond societal/marketing norms. First of all, women weren’t allowed to cover men’s events until the 1970s or so (and were often taunted in locker rooms: crude jokes, penis flashings etc), and when they finally got into press boxes male reporters more or less made them feel like shit. (“Let the girl cover the game, but she can cover it from some place other than the press box” Jack Carberry). To get gigs, they had to resort to pulling stunts: Nellie Bly raced around the globe, Mary Bostwick disguised herself as a man. Hard to imagine now but this was only 40 years ago. (btw, this is from Paula Creedon’s book “Women Media & Sport”)

    As for why women aren’t more into sports in general, like is that a “gender” difference or what–it’s not, it’s just that media outlets are so male-centric we forget women play or care about sports too. If you look at the percentage of girls who play sports in high school it’s pretty impressive (something like 40%). When SI for women came out and folded I think they said something like “women only care to play, they don’t want to be fans” which is so crazy! The media holds strangely archaic, traditionalist views about their audience and this affects what they produce which in turn perpetuates this notion of the normal we all buy into. The media is an educating force that, maybe, works so subliminally we’re not aware of it as being an influence. Even something as small as font styles, color choices. In any case, it tells women: sport has nothing to do with you. Stay out of it.

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