For the past two years or so, football's been missing something for this writer, and, what with his his being a bit slow, it's taken this long for him to figure out what that something was. Then it came to him all in a rush, one November morning in the dark, while watching, from many thousands of miles and several cultural light-years away, a famously petulant starlet-of-the-moment gracelessly take out his dissatisfaction with the attentions of that terrifying entity the Stoke City travelling support (and, presumably, with his insufficient 120,000-quid-a-week pay packet) by pouting and complaining all through an afternoon otherwise decorated by his own significantly skilful and by now familiar-to-the-point-of-redundant sporting glory.
Here--playing, mind you, against vastly inferior opposition, in front of some 65,000 of his "home" fans, who support him however much he disrespects them every time he talks to a non-English journalist--the wonderfully gifted lad drives home spectacular free kicks for the first and fifth goals, sets up the second goal, and shows off his spectacular skills with practically every touch. But consider the whole panorama: in the 34th minute he dives theatrically (another of his famous skills), in the 36th minute he utters a bitter complaint (aggrieved is his current standard mode, even when demonstrating his overwhelming genius), in the 40th minute he fakes an injury (poor baby is another familiar chord in his emotional symphony), in the 57th minute he begs for a foul (the mean streets of American cities, in the current encroaching world Depression, offer less evidence of dramatic begging), in the 64th minute we get the I can't-believe-I didn't-score routine (another of his standards), in the 70th minute his ersatz dignity is offended by so low a creature as Amdy Faye (poor me!), a minute later he exacts pettish revenge by retaliating against the hapless Faye, in the 78th minute he again begs for a foul, in the 79th minute his bad miss is accompanied by the shocked how could I? gesture we all know and love by now, and in the 89th minute he puts the last touches to this absorbing panorama (will it be remembered in the future that anybody else was playing in this game?) by scoring his 101st goal for the Theatre-of-Dreams-Team, to the tune of the announcer's fawning gushes--"Whatever he does, he's huge, great box office, great entertainment...Ronaldo has the last word!" Of course this adoring ten-minute video leaves out numerous instances of the young hero's irritation with the heckling of the Stoke supporters, his displays of what in Yank sporting parlance is called rabbit ears or the red ass. But anyone who didn't see the game can paint in those details by-the-numbers to complete the picture.
So, in looking this gift show-horse in the mouth, does one reveal merely an ingratitude bred of inveterate and chronic dyspepsia? How dare one suggest that something's missing from this picture of footballing sublimity at its current radiant pinnacle?
What's been missing, perhaps, are "intangible" things like soul, heart, dignity, pride, integrity, gravity, class: to sum up, all that famous "other stuff" that really has little to do with sport--although indeed not so very long ago the international sport of football did indeed boast at least a piece of it. Whatever one wishes to call this stuff, it was wonderfully embodied, as far as this writer is concerned, in a balding fellow in a blue shirt we last saw on the world stage in the summer of 2006. Zinedine Zidane, for those with micro-memories. To me Zidane represents the antithesis of Cristiano Ronaldo. In his career he embodied everything the latter player, for all his wondrous gifts, is not.
None of this is meant to suggest that Cristiano Ronaldo is not an absolute virtuoso. But it's like the moment in the film Tous Les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) in which the master musician breaks it to the young wunderkind that virtuosity is only the first step on the ladder to artistic perfection. There are worlds-within-worlds, and worlds-beyond-worlds, that remain to be conquered. And, curiously enough, the conquest probably must begin with a little murmur from that still, small voice within, otherwise known as modesty.
No one could deny the magnificent skills of the pouting, petulant, red-shirted "me first" lad, who has just now helpfully admitted to a Sao Paolo reporter that he considers himself not only the world's best footballer, but the second and third best as well.
But the balding fellow had a few skills also.
And the theme-music title of that last video clip, When We Were Kings, brings me toward the heart of my argument. His impoverished background aside, Zizou always stood out in the world of football for his character, which few could deny bore constant traces of something one can only call "noble" or even "aristocratic".
Just consider for a moment the picture that emerges in the remarkable film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.
Scrolling beneath this clip--during which we watch Zizou on the pitch, late in his career, playing for Real Madrid against Villareal, and doing nothing more remarkable than breathing, running a bit, and dispassionately executing a number of routine (for him) yet nonetheless perfect touches--we are given a sense of how this man dealt with crowd response: so very differently than the way the pouter-in-crimson reacted to those wicked Stoke hecklers.
As a child, he says, I had a running commentary in my head when I was playing. It wasn't really my voice... When you step on the field, you can hear the presence of the crowd. There is sound--the sound of noise. When you are immersed in the game you don't really hear the crowd. You can almost decide for yourself what you want to hear. You are never alone. I can hear someone shift around in their chair. I can hear someone coughing. I can hear someone whispering in the ear of someone next to them. I can imagine that I hear the ticking of a watch.
Stillness, inwardness, an ability to be both inside oneself and outside oneself in the same instant of time--are these qualities one often identifies in the footballers we presently admire?
Or, in case performances for which the player is paid nothing might be brought into this argument, see this match "Against Poverty" played on a Monday night in Morocco, two days after the aforementioned United/Stoke "contest". It's a charity game, organized by Zidane himself, together with that other, now all-but-forgotten Ronaldo (the one not named after a Republican president of the United States). Nothing is at stake here but the beauty of the experience of the game--and of the world.
Do those goals made and scored by ZZ for the sheer joy of it matter? Do they help anybody win?
And speaking of unrewarded noble acts on the pitch, who could exceed this one.
This is of course the singular view of an old topiary pachyderm lumbering out on his particular opinion-limb, as he head-butts his way toward the brink of that mortal cliff. Still one can't help wondering: does anybody else miss all that non-sport stuff once gifted upon the sweaty trade of football by the too-soon-departed Zizou?