Thursday, November 20, 2008

What's Missing from Football? - Beyond the Pale

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?


greengrass said...

Thanks - very enjoyable reading! Opportune, too, since I just came home from watching the Zidane film.
I haven't properly digested it yet, but one thing that struck me was his lack of emotion, his total concentration on ball and situation and what to do next.
Did I write "lack of emotion"? He smiled towards the end, sharing a joke with a team-mate, then suddenly went berserk and was sent off.
The pouting baby? I support United, and am sorry to say you're dead right.

donwendyagain said...

I for one will always be inspired by the way Zidane was able to drown out that nasty Italian defender, Materrazzi, during the World Cup Final and walk heroically away with dignity firmly intact in his last professional appearance.

I thought this piece was too long, dull and very, very predictable. Ronaldo is a preening, self absorbed twat without doubt but Zidane was hardly a paragon of virtue.

mac millings said...

Zidane was good, but he could be a mean so-and-so, too, headbutt or no.

Perhaps Ronaldo could do more charity work (or maybe he already does a lot, I don't know), but I'm not sure he should be learning anything else off ZZ apart from a couple of tricks.

beyond the pale said...

Well, Mac, one thing CR might learn from ZZ--and the evidence of this need would have appeared rather plainly in the first video link in this piece, a 10 minute clip of CR pouting his way through the Stoke match, alas eliminated because visually reproducing for free the exploits of CR, Man U and the exalted EPL is strictly prohibited--would be how not to spend your whole life imitating a ten-year-old rich boy at his own birthday party.

beyond the pale said...

Well, Mac, one thing CR might learn from ZZ--and the evidence of this need would have appeared rather plainly in the first video link in this piece, a 10 minute clip of CR pouting his way through the Stoke match, alas eliminated because visually reproducing for free the exploits of CR, Man U and the exalted EPL is strictly prohibited--would be how not to spend your whole life imitating a ten-year-old rich boy at his own birthday party.

Ebren said...

Hey BtP - link was ommitted because it's been pulled from youtube thanks to copyright infringments (or some such youtube nonsense). If you can find one that works I will happily include it

mac millings said...


Fair enough, that would be good. Still, from a distance, someone like Giggs seems like a better role model than Zidane.

ElSell said...

For me ZZ was one of the breed that ruined football and is the role model for twa*s like CR

Lots of stepovers on the half way line amoungst other things

Btw your "name" is offensive to some, mostly me!

Guitou said...

Thanks BtP, it's a very good piece, great clip on the Zidane's friends against Ronaldo's in FEZ last monday-
I won't omment on Zidane infamous headbutt, everything was said already but as far as role model,he is growing as symbol for racial unity in France and the work he is doing for charitable causes since he retired is second to none-
Trying to compare him with another player, particularly Giggs it's unfair-Different culture, education,and environment all these factors play definitely to Giggs advantage-Not to mention having A.F as a mentor!

Anonymous said...

btw ElSell,offensive, btP? could you explain bc at this point you seem to be the one throwing the punches.

millings said...

guitou -

yes, but BtP was comparing on-field behaviour, and ZZ is not the best role model for that. Giggs was part of Ferguson's complaining-to-the-ref revolution, to be sure, but seems to have matured since his teenage years.

Obviously, ZZ's place and stature in France is unique - it's not really Ronaldo's fault that there's no comparison there.

Guitou said...

Yes really,
" ZZ ruined football" it's a knock out . as good as mother Théresa ruined charity or Mozart ruined the music! I am sure ElSell was just kidding.

guitou said...

I agree with you on the field behaviour, there is no contest-But Fergie on his side helps. Don't you think?

MotM said...

I don't much care for Ronaldo's histrionics, but he never put responding to a personal slight ahead of the team's interest in the most important game of his comrades' lives. In fact it is something of a redeeming feature that, despite the sulks and the want-away interviews, CR gives more to his team than any other player I can think of. How much did ZZ offer his team sitting self-righteously in the changing room as his mates tried to cover for him? And he only played one decent match in the whole of WC2006 - a shdow of the player of WC1998 and EC2000.

guitougoal said...

"one decent match in the whole of the wc 2006" are you serious ,he carried the team all the way to the final .

offsideintahiti said...

I don't know where to start. I'll have to come back later. Thanks BtP.

beyond the pale said...

Thanks to greengrass for bringing up the ZZ film cited in the piece and to Guitou for looking up the Fez clip--both those video links were essential to this piece, as was the ten-plus-minute video of some of CR's antics in the Old Trafford Stoke Show (obviously meant by the videomaker as congratulatory not critical by the way): as Ebren notes, You Tube has pulled that one, alas. Of course there remain a million adulatory CR clips and almost as many insulting ones to be found on You Tube by anyone who wants to legally acquire a massive headache. There's a whole vast archive, for example, of clips on just the familiar diving end of CR's theatrical/performance- art/histrionic spectrum. Not that they can adequately replace the full repertoire of petulant wetness displayed in the Stoke game, but here are two of the better ones--the first a nice capture of the full operatic display as contained in "the Germany dive" (style points ten), the second a classic collection containing such favorites as "the Newcastle" and "the Lille prayer--with head clutch". Not to suggest these can properly replace the Old Trafford 100th goal-day show, mind you, but just to keep up the entertainment level until somebody ferrets out that full Stoke clip and re-posts it. I've given Ebren the links and he can post them here with highlighting if he's able and willing, or they can be found by searching You Tube for "Ronaldo is a cheater" and "Cristiano Ronaldo--Diving Queen".

MotM said...

Guy - see

My memory - and I may be mistaken - is that ZZ was at his best vs Brazil, but poor in the Group stage and well short of his "Brazil" level in the other games, including the Final.

Unlike almost every other player in the WC2006, ZZ improved in the knockout stages, but that doesn't mean that he was delivering 1998 / 2000 vintage performances.

donwendyagain said...

Just to elaborate on my earlier comments. I have lost count of the negative Ronaldo pieces which look to his theatrics for justification of the condemnation.

How many Italian or Spanish or South American players pout and preeen when thngs arent going their way? Yet it appears that Ronaldo is the only one who gets repeatedly called on it. Hence the predictable comment. To then elect Zidane the epitome of all that is good in the game? I also found the prose to be laboured and the points were repeated which led to the piece being dull in my opinion.

David Barry said...


munni said...

[disclaimer: I loathe Cristiano beyond reason. I want to punch him. So my comment should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.]

To me, the best players are the ones who make their team play better, and Cristiano does not do this. Zidane absolutely made his team better, occasional thuggishness aside, and this is one of the things I loved about him as a player.

Mouth, I can't agree with you at all.

Gui, re. symbol of racial unity, though, if memory serves I think he gave an interview a few years ago saying he never asked for that role and wasn't particularly happy to have it thrust on him - though that does not negate the effect.

MotM said...

munni - I know I'm in a minority, but I don't put Zidane in the highest class (ie that of Pele, Maradona, Platini, Cruyuff, Beckenbauer, Muller and perhaps five others) because he spent so much time contributing nothing to the team because he had been sent off or missed matches suspended.

Like Paul Scholes, the ludicrous number of cards he picked up for his position (and don't tell me it's because he was more provoked - all great players are provoked) other players have to work twice as hard closing down and tackling because the ill-disciplined prima donna is on a card (and that's despite referees' reluctance to give them a second yellow, in Scholes' case to a scandalous extent).

My point is not that Scholes and ZZ were not graceful, effective footballers, but in the highest company, they are deeply flawed. How deep? Try a World Cup in ZZ's case, as France would likely have won if he could just have put his team first for thirteen more minutes - but that was too much to ask.

bluedaddy said...

To be honest, I find the focus on footballers' 'personalities' a bore, particularly the on the field stuff (the off the field stuff is so irrelevant as to be meaningless). Who honestly gives a toss whether Ronaldo pouts or Terry shouts? It may appear that footballers are more self-obsessed than before, but the culture of celebrity will do that. The best footballers at my school were often tossers too. In fact I was pretty self obsessed from 16-25 too. Thank god cameras weren't recording me back in the 80s.

Only the football is really interesting.

Having said that, the Zidane WC06 incident is fascinating because it involves real actions, not the kind of nonsense described by BtP re Ronaldo. I agree to some extent with MotM re letting one's team mates down, but I fall in the camp that feels that without Zidane, the French team of the late 90s/early 00s would not have shone half so brightly. The fire that burned in him lit up that team, but at times burnt their fingers too.

As for CRonaldo the footballer - what fascinates me is whether he will truly mature and develop a better understanding of the game. He still makes immature and selfish decisions on the field, but his brilliance on the ball and speed give him further opportunities. He could learn a lot from Berbatov's greater guile and positioning.

donwendyagain said...

To compare a 23 year old with an acknowledged great who has finished his career is a pointless exercise.

beyond the pale said...

And--not to get too muzzy for Dave the cricket-statistics guy, here-- so is life, Don, when you get right down to it. Or is there some "point" I'm missing in any of this blather we're saying here? But that doesn't mean we can't all have a bit of pointless fun saying it, right? (Thanks, Pseuds!)

guitou said...

Yes,it's pointless, and it is most of the time-
Obviously you don't like Zidane
The Zidane story , the ending, it's a tragedy, still his performances and trophies speak for themselves-
Marcelo Lippi said about him that during his whole career as a coach the player who impressed him the most was: Zidane-

MotM said...

Guy - I do like Zidane, but I don't see that he, unlike Maradona, was so great a player that his play transcended his weaknesses. And I found the weaknesses were driven by a selfish approach, giving in to temptation on the field (unlike Maradona's which were largely off the field).

Ebren said...

I looked for a comparable clip to sum up CR's theatrics when posting this piece. I was confronted with a million CR - the greatest of all time; All 42-goals of his super season; CR vs [insert name of past great] etc and I just gave up.

He's like a two-year old. And that's weirdly accurate. If you watch a small child, they'll fall over, look up to see if anyone has noticed, and if they haven't, start balling. They want everything to be about them all the time, are terrible over-actors and, I will swear, CR would pick up the ball and tell everyone he's not playing any more if they won't give him free kicks/try and take the ball from him.

Sadly, he's also very good at football and won Man U the league (although almost cost them the CL).

ElSell said...

Apparenlty ive to explain my dislike of the term "beyond the pale"

If the Ireland was in Africa or Asia; this term that dates back to the when the English controlled ireland and was a derogatory term for the Irish from outside "the pale", would have been removed from common usage for fear of offending people.

Doesnt seem to matter with regards to offending the thinner skinned of us and is used on BBC radio constantly esp BBC5!
My dislike really comes from english toffs on BBC constantly using it!

That Ok?
ps as im sure the plastic Irish man MOTM ;) can confirm im half English so this isnt JUST some Mick hating the English thing :)

MotM said...

ElSell - I have learned something. I always believed this to be the derivation of the phrase, but I have just found Your point is a good one and one that I had never come across before (though I don't use the phrase myself).

ElSell said...

Well there u go MotM
glad to be of service ;)

As pretty much every english person who ever moved to ireland has at some stage drunkly said:

"er they dont really teach the truth about Irish history in England do they :("

Eg: the greatest englishman ever cronwell :( :(
in ireland is the most hated englishman ever, even more than the tranny Thacher; we all know the truth about "her" :)

offsideintahiti said...


hasn't the phrase "Beyond the Pale" passed into common language, to mean "unacceptable"?

I quite like the acronym, BTP, for "Bâtiments et travaux publics".

beyond the pale said...

El Sell--As it happens, since you bring it up, the pseudonym "Beyond the Pale" occurred like this: a while back I wrote a piece, not entirely loving, about the England football team, and sent it to Ebren under the title "Oof: the England Game, a Perspective from Beyond the Pale." At that point Ebren usefully dubbed me "Beyond the Pale". I'm entirely aware of the historical meaning of the term. My ancestral people--from counties Kerry and Westmeath in fact--dwelt literally among the subdued native cast, going well back beyond the days of Oliver. So it appears I'm "more Irish" than you are, though currently it seems we're both traitors enough to converse in the language of the master race. At least we're conversing, though, or anyway so I hope.

ElSell said...

As i said its the name that i dislke, dont know u from adam :)

My english lot are as plastic as they come, world class fiddle champions and all, so i got you covered all ends up on the irish bit.
Dont speak mick though as it has been hijacked by some awful arty muppets and the shinners :(

If it makes you feel better:
Half the english language you are speaking is Hiberno-English anyway :) due to
The old IRA plan B joke

Ps. Being from Westmeath and Kerry is generally something to be kept quiet:)

Close poker client & bed :)

offsideintahiti said...

Ah well, if you're from Kerry I won't be speaking to you anymore.

Up the Rebels, and away with ye!

beyond the pale said...

The interesting digression to establish bloodlines (faulty or no) prevented me from thanking Ebren for his post apropos CR. The light of reason is always helpful even when shining on mud, said Napoleon or Sir Alex Ferguson or somebody. And commiseration to Ebren also for enduring that CR video search. For those who'd care to experience the nano version, there's this lovely clip of the classic Germany Dive, packing into a brief 55 seconds the full operatics, great style points, mid-air grimace for benefit of official followed by in-flight "knee injury" plus plaintive hand gestures--marvelous stuff:

bluedaddy said...

I may have to pull rank here. In my experience a two year old, on falling, will cry if the fall WAS noticed. If it was missed, they will more likely get up and go about their crazy business.

Ronaldo for me is more like a slightly older kid (let's use the term 'adult') who seems keen to blame anyone but himself for his own inadequacies.

Anorak Greengrass said...

Just a word on here, for those interested: Henrik Larsson has started playing indoor bandy again, now that the Swedish footy season has ended.
For those who wonder, bandy is like footy but played on ice using hockey clubs. Though an English invention, it is popular nowadays in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia and Boratstan - the vodka belt.

donwendyagain said...

'Up the Rebels, and away with ye!'

A Cork man, why am I not surprised? Tir Eoghain Abu!

offsideintahiti said...


that vodka belt is really fetching, and I may need to borrow your anorak later on.

MotM said...

GG - Henke in action

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