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Gary Younge

From 17 angles ... Zidane
He shoots. He scores. He folds his socks

"All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football," said Albert Camus. As the goalkeeper for his university and one his generation's most prominent thinkers, he was in a unique position to make a link between football and philosophy.

It is a link some might find absurd. Those who would cry foul if you described opera as "fat people singing" will wonder what deeper meaning could possibly emerge from watching 22 grown men chase a ball.

Artist and film-maker Douglas Gordon's latest work, Zidane, a 21st century portrait, which premieres next week at Cannes, reveals why the connection for some is second nature. Gordon, 39, trains cameras on the star of France and Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane, and then follows only him for the duration of an entire Real Madrid-Villarreal game.

It is football, and a footballer, as you have never seen them before. Following just one player instead of the ball, you lose all sense of the game. It's like listening to Hamlet's lines but no one else's; you have a sense of the protagonist, but not of the narrative. "It's a portrait of a man at work," explains Gordon. It's only towards the end of the film that you realise Beckham and Ronaldo are also on the pitch.

The moments when Zidane is actually on the ball are brief and fleeting. Even a footballer gets down time, those moments at work when nothing much happens. Until he saw the film, says Gordon, "he didn't realise how rarely he touches the ball". The rest of the time Zidane prowls the field in deep concentration. Torrents of sweat pour from his head, and spit from his mouth. His tics keep him busy. Repeatedly he runs both hands over his face and head, grazes the tops of his boots on the grass like a show horse, and folds and unfolds his socks.

Even when Zidane does get the ball, nothing much about his expression seems to change: he carries it with him effortlessly, as if it were an extension of his feet. Then he gives it away and goes back to prowling. At one point he sets up a goal with a stunning run and dummy. Only the wide angle reply makes his skill obvious; and only the elation of his team-mates makes it clear what happened. In the whole 90 minutes he smiles just once. The rest of the time he maintains an unflinching stare. He shows the same amount of emotion when Real Madrid concede a penalty, which is converted, as he does when his team score: precisely none.

When Gordon played the film back to Zidane, the footballer said:"I get photographed every day, but I never see myself look like this. I don't think I'm looking at myself any more. I think I'm looking at my brother."

In the film, Gordon occasionally uses quotes from Zidane as subtitles, from conversations he had with Gordon and his French-Algerian collaborator, Philippe Parreno. "The game, the event, is not necessarily experienced or remembered in 'real time'," he says. "My memories of games and events are fragmented." Later, Zidane recalls: "I remember playing in another place, at another time, when something amazing happened. Someone passed the ball to me, and before even touching it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew I was going to score. It was the first and last time it ever happened." At times you hear the roar of the crowd, and others the pounding of boots on turf, like hooves.

At first you think of Eric Cantona's seagulls. But as you watch the footage you realise Zidane really is trying to make sense of his working life. "It took us by surprise," says Gordon. "It's philosophical, but it's also quite basic. Footballers don't have a reputation for any depth of anything. Zidane doesn't say a lot. But we'd say things to him, and three months later he would think about it and respond. I think it really intrigued him."

When the game reaches half-time, Gordon puts the camera on the world and shows us what else was happening on that day, April 23 2005. In Germany, hundreds of toads swell to three times their normal size and explode. The ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct since 1920, is spotted in North America. A car bomb in Najaf kills nine (an Iraqi at the scene wears a Zidane top). In the text accompaning these shots, Gordon interjects banalities from his own life. "My son had a fever this morning," he writes. Shortly afterwards: "I had something to do today." Gordon, an affable Glaswegian who has lived in New York for several years, cites Camus as one of his main influences. "I'm interested in the problem of the everyday. The mundane," he says. His favourite line from Camus's L'Etranger? "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know."

He came up with the idea for the film after an exhibition in Israel, when he and Parreno had three days to kill. Gordon bought a football. Every day they played "keepy-uppy" and talked about football. Whenever he was in France, the pair would meet up and carry on the conversation. "Zidane's name would keep coming up," explains Gordon. "Philippe was born in Oran. So was Camus and Zidane's family. Zidane is pretty special, not just because of his talent, but because he seemed to represent more than football. He represents a generation of immigrants. He's an outsider in many respects and can clearly galvanise more than himself."

Getting to Zidane was not easy, and it took friends of friends to suggest the project to the footballer. He was interested enough to meet them, but warned: "I'll meet them, but you know I'm not going to do this." Once he met Gordon and Parreno he was intrigued. "He was really into leaving something behind that is more significant than 'the best of'," says Gordon. "Each meeting with him lasted either 45 minutes or 90 minutes" - as if Zidane lived his life in game-sized segments.

The game really chose itself. With 17 cameras and a crew of about 150 people, there was no way they could shoot at the big match between Barcelona and Real Madrid; the Villarreal game was more manageable. In the end Real Madrid won 2-1, and Zidane got sent off after a fracas at the end. "That was good," says Gordon. "If Real Madrid had won and Zidane had scored a hatrick it wouldn't have been quite so real."

The form the film would take grew out of their conversations and a desire to be counter-intuitive. "Portraiture is not our bag in our generation," says Gordon. "That immediately makes it interesting to me. We thought we could use ideas from the art world and combine them with popular culture. We wanted to see if you could sustain people's interest for 90 minutes."

That, says Gordon, is the link between this project, which will go on general release in 300 cinemas in France after Cannes, and 24 Hour Psycho, his most famous work, in which he slows down Hitchcock's thriller so that it lasts a whole day. "The film represents real time," he says. "The game was 93 minutes. The film is 93 minutes."

Zidane started his football career in Cannes, so Gordon sees symmetry in opening the film there. Zidane's family will be attending, although not the man himself. Gordon himself also seems none too keen on attending; the installation for his new exhibition at New York's Moma begins the same day and he would rather stay home. "New York is a great place to hide," he says.

And in this lies what seems to be his deepest personal connection with the film. The performer as artisan, shutting out the noise and concentrating on their work. "Every portrait of a subject," he says, "is to some extent also a portrait of the artist".

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