A Fraction Of The Whole: Zinedine Zidane

Celebrating the game’s minutiae, one tiny fragment at a time

"Oooh, look at me, I can do overhead kicks and stepovers and that." Can he play it simple? Can he BALLS.

“Oooh, look at me, I can do overhead kicks and stepovers and that.”
Can he play it simple? Can he BALLS.

Do you remember seeing Escape To Victory for the first time? I know I do. I was a young child with a nascent interest in football, just discovering this interesting new world, so the very thought that there was a film about football – a film! – made it essential viewing. The plot details will be familiar to all by now, but just in case you’d forgotten, the glorious zenith of the football match around which the film is focussed was Pele’s overhead kick. It was supposed to epitomise the film’s central message – that sport can triumph over just about anything, even those bloody Nazis. Discussions would’ve taken place among scriptwriters, the director, perhaps even Pele himself, to decide how best to physically represent the emotional impact of the goal, and they decided on a move that has since become the Brazilian’s trademark of sorts. By decree of Hollywood, the bicycle kick was the single most skilful thing a footballer could do.

And yet I never liked it. As a child, my inner curmudgeon deconstructed the nonsensical simulacrum of Pele’s slow-motion heroics. I dismissed it, realising how artificial it was. I knew it was obviously not a real game, but it was surely meant to look like one, and yet did not. It was inconceivable to me that anyone could ever get away with such a moment of flamboyance and daring without being clattered by a centre-half. Worse, a Nazi centre-half, surely the worst sort of centre-half there is. My ten-year-old thinking, not yet equipped with words such as ‘curmudgeon’ and ‘simulacrum’, was loosely along these lines: ‘Football’s not like that’. Despite my callow youth, I was somehow utterly convinced that the real game could never be like that, so perfect, and felt that football in the real world could only ever struggle in vain to emulate a moment of such stage-crafted brilliance.

Of course, I would eventually be proven wrong any number of times throughout my life, and discover to my joy that football can be that good, even better in fact. There is one brief moment of footballing joie de vivre which demonstrates that better than any other, and occurred when France played Portugal at Euro 2000. You will likely have seen the clip before in various video montages, specifically those illustrating the brilliance of the man in question. It was this dizzying moment of chest control from Zinedine Zidane, a moment when sport and art were joined in perfect symbiosis, and the promise of beauty and performance were somehow capable of a man simply running after a ball. It stands as a portrait capturing how sporting endeavour and physical motion can intersect and become something closer to ballet. Whenever I think of Zidane, I think of that moment, where the flight of the ball was the master of his will, and the synapses linking brain and body were somehow closer than those of mortals. Whenever I think of that moment, for some reason, I think of Escape To Victory.

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For Zidane to seemingly slow the game down in such an act of deftness, speed of thought and corporeal mastery: it was art house cinema to the showbiz glitz of Pele’s scripted pyrotechnics. Whenever I see that clip of Zidane, it plays out in my mind’s eye as the Pele overhead kick was meant to play out before my actual eyes. I transpose the lilting, uplifting whistles and twinkles of the film’s score as Pele twists skyward, applying it to the Frenchman and making it real. The move didn’t even result in a goal, which only makes it greater for living in the memory as it has done. The reason that I’ve taken to comparing Zidane’s moment of skill to Pele’s is because that is how football at its most spellbinding is really meant to look.  Zidane managed in real life what Pele took a film crew, a contrived dribbling sequence and two slow-motion replays to do. That is what you get when a footballer makes football look like theatre.

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A Fraction Of The Whole: Malky Mackay

Celebrating the game’s minutiae, one tiny fragment at a time

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As Cardiff City recently celebrated winning the Championship, I was reminded of last season’s Carling Cup Final. At that time the Welsh side were fighting on two fronts, contesting their first League Cup final while also hoping to achieve the promotion that had been elusive for four frustrating years.

Liverpool would eventually beat Cardiff on penalties, but not before the Welsh side put up a fight. They took a first-half lead through Joe Mason, before goals from Martin Skrtel and Dirk Kuyt restored the natural shape of the giants/minnows axis. With players tiring deep into extra time, Cardiff’s players were still gamely battling away, trying to find a way back in.

Somewhere around the 115th minute, the ball went out for a throw-in. Cardiff’s Aron Gunnarsson approached the touchline to retrieve the ball from his manager, Malky Mackay. Rather than hurriedly flinging the ball back to his player, impatient in the desperate search for an equaliser, his manager simply waited for his player to trot over on dead legs, before slowly and calmly handing it back to him, and telling him to take his time. Two minutes later, Cardiff defied the odds once more to equalise.

In that second, a mere atom of the final, Mackay demonstrated a faith in his players to get the goal they needed. There was no panic, no anxiety, nothing to fluster his team. In such situations we are used to seeing frantic managers gesticulating wildly, often while jabbering inanely. Gunnarsson himself would play a part in the goal, knocking on a corner towards Ben Turner, who gratefully slammed home a goal that warranted the Gold VIP shirt-off celebration, reserved only for the most dramatic of strikes.

There can be no telling precisely how influential Mackay’s subtle intervention was. Such a minuscule incident will have been forgotten, not least because Cardiff would go on to lose the subsequent penalty shoot-out as Liverpool went on to lift the cup instead. But this moment of sangfroid from Cardiff’s manager was emblematic of the approach that would eventually serve the club well. After years of collectively ruffling overpriced footballer haircuts against the glass ceiling, Cardiff have finally joined the elite. They will attempt to establish themselves with a squad largely made up of players who will seek to prove themselves in the Premiership for the first time. The likes of David Marshall, Kim Bo-Kyung and Peter Whittingham have excelled in the Championship, but will now be given the chance to mix it in England’s top tier.

If they are to succeed, they will require more of the belief and composure that Mackay demonstrated last season at Wembley. Such leadership has steered them through the haze of previous disappointments, as well as the turbulent change of colour decreed by the club chairman, Vincent Tan. It will take Cardiff some investment, greater application and diligent preparation, but if Cardiff are to thrive next season, don’t be too surprised if they grab some points by fighting until the very last minute, taking their time once more.

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A Fraction Of The Whole: Samuel Okunowo

Celebrating the game’s minutiae, one tiny fragment at a time

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You probably haven’t heard of Samuel Okunowo. If you had heard of him, it’s likely that you’d forgotten anyway. Currently playing in his native Nigeria for Sunshine Stars FC, he had a front-row seat for an iconic goal whilst playing for Barcelona, as Manchester United’s strike partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole reached its dizzying zenith.

You probably will remember this next bit. Roy Keane rolls an innocuous pass infield to Yorke, who allows the ball to run through his legs for Cole. The men then exchange a one-two that is as devastating in its speed of execution as well as its sheer simplicity; such an easy thing to do, and yet not, like any true act of genius. The finish from Cole is typically cool, with the sort of ruthless inevitability typical of those rare moments when the opposition would probably stop to applaud if their pride could allow it.

Okunowo adds some memorable punctuation to this moment, cast as he was as the slapstick fall guy. Yorke’s return pass reduces the young defender to a picture of befuddlement, as he struggles to comprehend what’s just happened. As he spins on the spot to contemplate his uselessness, he throws his arms to the heavens in a gesture that could be attempting to say many things, chiefly among them, this: “Just what in the hell is goin’ on here?!”

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The gesture itself is barely perceptible unless you’re looking for it, but once you notice it, Okunowo’s flailing arms are remarkable. He turns from Cole to Yorke and back again, and is left with blood so twisted that he seems to be literally grasping for something to maintain his balance; like a weak swimmer reaching for the side of the pool, this is a man well and truly out of his depth, and has probably forgotten his towel as well. Until Carles Puyol should decide to turn out for the blaugrana in a pair of rollerskates, Okunowo will surely retain the title he secured that night of Most Frank Spencerish Barcelona Defender.

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It may seem harsh to castigate the man’s lack of sangfroid given the extraordinary telepathic skill that had unpicked the defence, but it’s interesting to note his subsequent career path: loaned out to Benfica the next season, CD Badajoz the season after that. Greece, Romania, Albania, Ukraine, the Maldives and England’s Waltham Forest would eventually take their turn in playing host to a career heavily stalled by injury. After leaving Barcelona he would only achieve appearances in the double-figures just once in his career.

There lies a perverse sort of glory in this. Who knows what might’ve become of Okunowo, once trusted to start a Champions League game between two of Europe’s most storied clubs, had he not been plagued by injuries. If he does nothing else in his career (something he appears to be well on his way to achieving) he will at least be able to say that he was caught in the eye of a perfect storm, as a fleeting but fabulous partnership reached it’s perfect peak of destruction. And while he was powerless to stop it, he managed to contribute to the spectacle with his sheer hopelessness, which for so long remained concealed by the brilliance which spawned it.