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."