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Micro-Essay: Wit and Its Relation to Brandon Phillips

For reasons that needn’t be explored now or ever, the author of this post found himself watching in bed this morning, via informationPhone, the video embedded here of retired footballer Zinedine Zidane’s performance in the quarterfinal of the 2006 World Cup against Brazil.

As the panoply of Zidane compilation videos on the internet suggests, Zidane was both (a) very talented and (b) widely hailed. What one can’t help from observing — from this video specifically, and his career generally — is how Zidane, whenever he touched the ball, almost always improved his team’s fortunes. In baseball, we can derive from a player’s line the number of runs he’s created relative to a replacement player. Were such a thing possible in soccer, Zidane would likely have been among his respective league’s leaders every season — despite never scoring many goals himself.

A large part of Zidane’s excellence, of course, owes to the rare combination and volume of skills in his possession: a deft touch, physical strength, and seemingly preternatural understanding of the pitch and location of all the players on it. What’s also notable, however — at least for the purposes of this very brief post — is what I’ll call Zidane’s capacity for wit.

Wit is, of course, a quality that one generally associates with arts and letters — with Oscar Wilde and those who’ve played Oscar Wilde in movies. Insofar, however, as wit is characterized by a celerity of thought — of solving a problem both quickly and in surprising fashion — it is surely possible to suggest there is such thing as a physical expression of wit, as well.

Consider, for example, the sequence at the 1:01 mark of the above video. Here we see Zidane fronted by Brazilian defender Cafu. Zidane is aware of the overlapping run on his left by (I believe) Eric Abidal. Instead of turning and making a deliberate pass to the running Abidal, however — a predictable maneuver for so experienced a player as Cafu — Zidane pulls the ball back with his right foot and flips it down the line into Abidal’s path. In so doing, Zidane has forced Cafu into a more vulnerable position and created even more space for Abidal’s subsequent attack. The sequence is a testament to Zidane’s skill, indeed, but just as much to his capacity for providing creative solutions to problems in real-time.

This sort of kinetic wit, as one might also call it, exists in the sport which is our concern here, too. The video below of Brandon Phillips throwing to first between his legs is one example of it. There are many others, also. The purpose of this piece is not to catalog all the instances in which something like this has occurred and by whom. The idea is to suggest that what we’re seeing, when we see it, is an instance of wit demonstrated physically.

That having been said, it is my intention now to eat a sandwich.