Napoles, Italy

“Soccer and art”, by Luiz Camillo Osorio

Read the first text written by Luiz Camillo Osorio in 2021.
Translation by Rebecca Atkinson


“In soccer the worst blind man is the one who only sees the ball” – Nelson Rodrigues

Two subjects close to my heart. My emotional memory is inexorably marked by soccer. I carry around with me the inscriptions left by emotions experienced in Maracanã stadium or watching TV, in most cases with Fluminense and the Brazilian squad as the protagonists. I wouldn’t know how to live without soccer. It’s something mundane and marvelous to realize. In my adult life, art has been another existential pillar. Having conversations with artists, visiting museums, exhibitions, and studios, writing reviews, making theoretical reflections, devising real and imagined curatorial projects, all this is part of my professional life and a real source of pleasure (despite the verbiage and affectation surrounding the world of contemporary art). A belief in the value of aesthetic experience (and how we can share the world through it) is what soccer and art share for me.

So why am I talking about these two subjects at the same time here? Well, I dreamt the other day that I was in a debate defending the thesis that Maradona was the most tragic and therefore the most exciting player of the twentieth century. When I woke up, I remembered the dream and decided to go with it. Pelé was an ace, but he wasn’t that exciting. Pelé was Apollonian. Absolute genius, the greatest of them all: virtuosic, implacable, complete. Maradona was driven by a kind of demonic rage, the plasticity of his game was pure transgression. 

Take Argentina’s victory against England in 1986. He scored twice. The goals were both extraordinary and complementary. One a handball – his hand clear and yet invisible – and the other dribbling past half the team from before the halfway line, possessed, unstoppable, showing the world that this was not a game, but a historic happening. And he didn’t just play on the pitch: his titles and his defeats spilled out beyond it, too. 

Last year, I saw Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Maradona. I read at the time that he didn’t like it. I did. The film focused on Maradona’s time at Napoli, where he plummeted from heaven to hell in the space of three years. Victories, unthinkable titles, mafia, drugs, adulation, paranoia. After winning an Italian championship, during the celebrations that took over Naples for weeks (to get an idea of what this represented to soccer fans), a banner was left at the cemetery entrance reading, “You don’t know what you’ve missed”. Maradona was God in Naples. He still is.

I think another reason why I liked the film was because soccer and cinema take me back to my childhood and adolescence. I grew up watching Canal 100. It was only worth going to the movies to watch those beginning moments of the session. The camera following the game close to the turf, the dribbling skills in slow motion, the noise of the crowd in the background, the participation of Geraldino, the unforgettable music, it was all an integral part of my emotional education. 

And so I get to what I wanted to make some modest comments about: the art of filming soccer(1). The art of filming as a way of thinking and feeling soccer. A parenthesis in context. The relationship between cameras and the game has been vilified recently with the introduction of VAR. A camera that surveils for transgressions now superimposes the camera that witnesses the extraordinary. It’s fair, granted, but soccer has nothing to do with fairness. Nobody loves soccer because it’s fair; actually, perhaps the contrary. It’s one of the sports in which surprising/unfair things actually happen all the time, which is what ramps up its tragic potential. It’s at the very least curious – to push the point perhaps too far – that now, in the pandemic, we’re experiencing the pinnacle of VAR in stadiums empty of crowds. This seems to me to be the logical conclusion for such a resource, which would, above all, completely erase all the spontaneity and aesthetic potential of soccer. But let’s get back to the point – about art and soccer, about the camera that would show what isn’t seen.

One quite unique film in this respect is Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno. One player, one match, 17 cameras. It’s a film about art, about the portrait, about a star, about waiting, about soccer. All that we see throughout an entire match is Zinedine Zidane, all cameras turned on him. I’ve never seen the film from beginning to end at the theater, just parts, many of them, on different occasions. The logistics of making the film can’t have been easy. How to strike up contact with the player? How to get to film him in that way during an official match? How to film a match using 17 cameras, all following the same player? How to enroll a team of good camera operators and give them all the same task? A scriptless film. On the day of the match – Real Madrid against Villareal at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium – I read that the whole team went to the Prado to see an exhibition on portraiture in Spanish art from Velazquez and Picasso, which they were led around by the two artists. It’s in the context of this story that it belongs. 

According to the artists, the hard thing was to work out how to edit all the footage into one film. A laborious job. The whole point of the film is to make us feel as if we were there with the player out on the pitch – waiting for the ball, running, passing, marking, colliding with opponents, thinking with his eyes and legs, in slow and rapid movements, where to place his hands, what direction to run in, to breathe, wait, wait, wait. There are lots of pauses, where apparently nothing is going on. The artist is carried along by the game, full of reflexivity. It reminded me of a wonderful poem by João Cabral about the Palmeiras midfielder Ademir da Guia, which I reproduce here because it has a lot to do with Zidane. 

With skill, Ademir imposes
the pace (and weight) of lead,
of snail, of slow motion,
of man trapped in nightmare. 

With liquid pace, slipping past
opponent, thick, from within,
encroaching upon him,
controlling him, blighting him.

With gentle pace, of stroll on sand,
of sickened water in flooded land,
stupefying then entangling
the feistiest of foes.

In a letter to the magazine Parkett addressed to Philippe Parreno, the film critic Luc Lagier makes some interesting observations about this film. I pick one out here: “Contrary to all expectations, my reaction to your film was physical, visceral, claustrophobic – in short, a genuine experience of fear comparable to what I had felt when viewing the horror films of my adolescence, which I never thought I’d encounter again. ZIDANE: A 21st CENTURY PORTRAIT was like a scary movie to me. Really”(2). This claustrophobia is achieved by the shooting in close-up, the liquid, slow, thick pace that encroaches upon the viewer and strips them of any capacity for distanced perspective, impeding their full awareness of the scene, a complete view of the moves and the pitch. As in the films Warhol shot in real time, we are wracked by boredom even as we note the elegance of the movements. 

In any one soccer match, a single player, no matter how pivotal they are, will have very little possession of the ball. According to recent studies, each player spends on average 1.5 minutes with the ball at their feet in the course of the 90 minutes! This reality is magnified in the film, since the camera never turns its gaze to anything except Zidane. In soccer, the emotion is focused around the dynamics of the ball, the orchestrated movements around it. The volume and intensity of the game is increasingly the facet of a team, not a player. As the film’s title puts it, it is a portrait: the portrait of a hero in action, not a soccer match. And victory or defeat is not the point. Real Madrid actually lost, but this goes unremarked.

Another important work that draws on soccer without restricting itself to the game is Deep Play (2007), by Harun Farocki. Shown first in 2007 at Documenta, in Kassel, it forced me to watch it throughout the four days I spent there. There are 12 screens in all, each showing one aspect of the 2006 World Cup final, between Italy and France. Yes, the one where Zidane headbutted the defender Materazzi in the chest. 

As is usual in Farocki’s work, it’s impossible to view this installation in a single sitting. It deals with so many aspects, all of which go towards forming a socio-political-cultural mosaic that hinges on the cleverness of its montage. When a World Cup final is broadcast, the complexity of the live sporting event is intensified. There are billions of viewers, countless commercial interests, a myriad of security concerns, and tactical and technical investments of many lives played out in 90 minutes. As he shows us the match, Farocki also makes us see, through each screen, the security perspective, the commentators’ analysis, the editing control, the managers; he created animations with tactical schemes, highlighting the movement of the offensive and defensive plays in heat graphics that shifted around the screen. 

You could even watch the match. But curiously enough, that was the least interesting part. I had already seen most of it and the game wasn’t particularly exceptional. but the different angles presented, the mass of security and broadcasting paraphernalia, the strategies, the movement of the ball and the teams – all this was fascinating. A realization as yet intuitive and provisional. The portrait of Zidane and the 2006 World Cup final mark a transition in soccer. The soccer star gradually begins to lose his pride of place to the team; ball control is supplanted by pitch coverage; the brilliance of a solo effort begins to be worth less than the cohesion and intensity of collective play. Zidane’s headbutt is the desperation of the last soccer star of the twentieth century realizing he cannot compete with the unyielding mass of Italian markers that Farocki’s screen makes explicit. Messi and CR7 are a different matter.

Seeing both these works – by Parreno/Gordon and Farocki – we realize, or else we are reminded, just how supremely political a phenomenon soccer is in this time of ours, just how much it manipulates, fascinates, disconcerts, unites, enchants, and devastates us. What we do with this is a matter that cannot be separated from what this, soccer, does to us. I would say that soccer is one of the few places where emotions of communion and segregation can still be produced, with the shared world of the game as the supreme binding force. Indifference towards soccer is much more incomprehensible to the soccer lover than the emotion felt by a supporter of a different team. This is the politics that matters in soccer: an exercise in passionate disagreement.

To finish with one more film and bring us back to Brazil, I couldn’t fail to mention here Lula Wanderley’s Arte é o Futebol sem Bola [Art is Football Without a Ball]. It opens with the words of Nelson Rodrigues at the beginning of this article: “In soccer the worst blind man is the one who only sees the ball.” The film is a masterpiece of stunning simplicity, especially if we compare it with the other two. And it literally delivers what it promises. It shows that soccer cannot be reduced to the ball, but is about the dynamic of the bodies around it, the choreography, the plasticity of the bodies in supreme concentration and performativity. 

Wanderley shows three historic World Cup goals in sequence: Pelé in 1958 against Sweden; Maradona in 1986 against England; Romário in 1994 against the Netherlands. Except he deletes the ball from the scene and allows the play to flow without it. What remains, distilled to the extreme, is fantasy, dance, and the combat of bodies in motion, the essence of soccer. The removal of the ball reveals all the beauty of the game as just one thing: preparation for the play, the goal, and the celebration. And the camera promotes and bears witness to these rare moments. Back in a time when there was no killjoy VAR to interrupt our enjoyment.

(1) When I talk of soccer and film, I cannot fail to mention Cinefoot, a soccer film festival that has been held 11 times, to the delight of those who love both arts. I must also praise the people from Doze Futebol, whose short documentaries bring what is on the margins of soccer into focus. Finally, I gratefully acknowledge the countless historical films about this uncouth British sport, beginning, in Brazil, with Garrincha, Alegria do Povo (1962), by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, until, more recently, the remarkable Geraldinos (2015), by Renato Martins and Pedro Asbeg. There are many good films about soccer, but what interests me in this text is something else: it’s more about how film or video can rethink soccer, incorporating and translating the experience of the game.

(2) Luc Lagier, Parkett n. 86, 2009. 

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