Thursday, July 13, 2006

Lose your temper, risk losing your reputation

I was born with a disposition towards a quick, hot temper. I’ve had to learn to control it over the years. If I think back over my life, the moments that I most regretted and the biggest mistakes that I have made tended to be associated with events where I let my temper get away from me. I can think of several times in particular in which I thought that my display of “strength” would demonstrate to one young woman or another that I was not a pushover. Wrong move... My oldest son tends to be hot-tempered as well, and I’m working hard to help him learn to deal with that.

I enjoyed the World Cup event for the most part. I especially enjoyed living vicariously though our new fussball-mad German neighbors next door, celebrating and lamenting with them through the ups and down of the tournament. The games were a lot of fun to watch, although as an American, there are several things that felt “foreign” to me and are hard to understand. Previously, I made some references to those things that I consider as flaws of the sport here.

One of those foreign, inexplicable things, was the event that took place in the final match between France and Italy. I’ve been told that Zinedine Zidane, the brilliant French midfielder, is the greatest soccer player of his generation – probably the best player to come along in the last 20 years. He was born in Marseilles, of Algerian descent. After a long and stellar 18-year career, he recently retired from soccer, but came back out of retirement to help a floundering French team get in shape to recapture some of the glory days they enjoyed in 1998.

Well into the overtime period of last Sunday’s game, tied at 1-to-1, it looked like the teams were headed towards deciding the game by penalty-kicks (which seems to be the way that most important soccer games are decided nowadays…). This was especially worrisome for Italy, because Zidane had already scored on a penalty kick earlier in the game. He’s especially good at them. He handles the pressure with aplomb, like he has ice-water in his veins. Zidane got tangled up with the Italian defender Marco Materazzi at midfield, and the two players had words. This video shows the incident in which Materazzi (the game’s other goal scorer) was manhandling Zidane a bit. According to Zidane, he turned to Materazzi and said something like, “If you want to swap jerseys, we can wait until after the game.” As Zidane extricates himself and pulls away, Materazzi is muttering something at him. After a few more steps, Zidane turns around, walks back, and knocks Materazzi right off of his pins with a powerful head butt to the chest. Zidane was given a red card and ejected from the game, leaving the stunned French announcer to lament “Why?… Why?”. France became dispirited and discombobulated after this loss of poise from their leader, and their lack of confidence showed. They lost the World Cup to Italy minutes later on penalty-kicks. Zidane was in the locker room when the game ended, and did not come out to the stand later to collect his silver medal.

According to Zidane, Materazzi insulted his mother and sister several times. Materazzi denies insulting his mother. In this article, Britain's top forensic lip-reader, Jessica Rees, claims that Materazzi called Zidane a "son of a terrorist whore". Another lip-reader claims that Materazzi had told Zidane that his sister was a "prostitute".

Whatever the truth is, a taint is left on both players as a result of each losing his temper. Zidane was awarded the “Golden Ball” as best player in the tournament, but that might not hold up. French fans have made up songs and games about the head butt, but over time, I sense that this will be forgotten, and the conclusion will be that Zidane lost his cool and his poise when his team most needed him, and Italy won the Cup as a result. After a long and brilliant career, this will be remembered as the signature event of it, and it happened after his official retirement in a World Cup final.

In the NFL and in other American professional leagues, players try to get each other’s goat all the time, even to the point of saying nasty things about each other’s mamas, but I’ve rarely seen such a meltdown in such a clutch situation. American athletes are taught to shrug this stuff off as best as they can and to prove whatever they have to prove with their play. Then again, maybe I’ve got it all wrong in looking at it through American eyes. Will Europeans see it differently, particularly the French?
A reggae-like song about the head butt has become an instant Internet hit. Sportswriters and the French sports minister called his action odious, shameful, unsportsmanlike, and petulant. Yet rumors abounded that something unsupportable had been said. Lip-readers were employed by various news organizations and concluded that the Italian had used racial epithets or slurs against Zidane's mother and sister. The right-wing Italian Senate president fueled speculation by saying the French team "sacrificed its identity by selecting blacks, Islamists, and communists."

Finally, on Wednesday night, Zidane appeared on national television.
Yes, the soccer star said, Materazzi had used terrible language, insulting his mother and his sister. No, Zidane said, he would not repeat the exact words. All he would say was that he was profoundly, deeply hurt.

"I would rather have taken a punch in the face" than hear such insults, he said.

Zidane, dressed in a T-shirt with a khaki Army surplus coat draped over his shoulders, said repeatedly that he apologized to the children and teachers of the world who saw his head butt.

He called his act "unforgivable" but called for sanctions as well against "the true culprit" who had insulted his family.

Then, mixing his message even further, he declared that he regretted nothing. To have refrained from reacting would have implied that the Italian was right to utter the insults, he said.

"I take responsibility for the good and the bad," he said. "Now another life begins. I'll be less watched, less observed. I am going to try to devote myself to my children and my family. I intend to return to Algeria to rediscover my roots, the land of my parents."

With those words, he reminded his audience of how far he had come. For Mr. Zidane has long been the prime example of a "beur," as French people of North African descent are commonly called, who crossed over into mainstream celebrity status by way of professional sports. He was a source of pride in immigrant neighborhoods, a case in point for French politicians who insisted on the openness of French society and a bane to those on the xenophobic far-right who complained France was losing its white European identity.

In the final score, Zidane became for some the embodiment of a quality admired in more than a few French circles: the willingness to sacrifice victory for pride.

"I see, thanks to Zidane, the victory of a certain national spirit," wrote François Sureau, a French philosopher, in the newspaper Le Figaro, on Thursday. Zidane, he said, "has given us back our beautiful reputation for insolence."


Paula said...

Here in Germany people said same: that Zizou had no excuse to hit the Italian player. Zizou did played in Italy and he knows that Italian players have smart mouths. I felt sorry for him and for everybody. The problem was that some of the players wanted to win does not matter what. Like the French players who were chasing penalty kikcs by facking fault. Zizou lost his temper cause of the same problem: he was too much obsessed with the victory.
Soccer is not only a matter of how good one plays, it is a matter of a bit of luck, of pure chance also.:-).

Jeff said...

Hi Paula,

I feel badly for him too. What a way to exit and be remembered after a long and successful career. At 34, hurting and frustrated, I think he was just burnt-out. The pressure to win in the biggest sporting event in the world, being watched in front of a billion viewers must be intense. On the other hand, there are some who seem admire his French "insolence" as the article suggested. I think the whole North African/terrorist/racial angle adds an element to the trash-talking that we don't have here that makes it more serious.

Soccer does seem kind of arbitrary. Teams can struggle in a might deadlock for endless periods only to have someone given a golden and easy opportunity just because someone took a swan-dive that fooled the referee. Th play-acting and fakery gets on my nerves sometimes.

Steve Bogner said...

A verteran soccer player, it seems to me, ought to be able to shrug off whatever trash-talk comes his way. But, maybe we're not as sensitive to the racial aspect of it either; we're pretty far removed from that perspective. And, sometimes we build up athletes too much, expecting things from them that they can't deliver, or that we wouldn't be able to meet ourselves.

Either way, I love the game.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

How've you been? Work been busy? I enjoy the game too, even with the caveats I've listed. Like you, I have a son who plays, and I enjoy watching those games more.

This summer my son is switching from soccer to American football, somewhat against Anne's wishes and better judgment, but he really wants to do it. I'm interested in seeing how he holds up in practice in full pads when it hits 95 degrees in August.


Joe said...

What a heartbreak! I have often used Zidane as an example of role-model for kids (even adults). As it turns out he has had these rare but notable outbursts with his temper over the years. Its just a shame that the timing of this one came as it did: just when his team needed him most and when his fans were ready and willing to reserve an exclusive place of honor for him in football history.

Jeff said...

Hi Joe,

Now here's someone who's seen my temper firsthand. :-)

Too bad about Zidane. Being in close proximity to Real Madrid, you guys must have really enjoyed his excellence, but as you say, he's had somewhat of a history. With 14 red cards in his career, it's almost a little surprising that someone didn't try to get his goat earlier.

My apologies to everyone for not leaving much to look at here.... I've been very busy, plus I've been working on a draft of a very long post. It doesn't mean I haven't been reading you all either. :-)