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 Pelé’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 Pelé 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 skillful thing a footballer could do. And yet I never liked it. As a child, my inner curmudgeon deconstructed the nonsensical simulacrum of Pelé’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. 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 Pelé 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 Pelé 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 Pelé’s is because that is how football at its most spellbinding is really meant to look. Zidane managed in real life what Pelé 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.
This article first appeared in Póg Mo Goal magazine Issue 1.