Why ZZ blew his top

The soccerati’s search for a noble rationale for Zidane’s moment of madness typifies their silly quest for higher meaning in football.

Duleep Allirajah

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Why did Zinedine Zidane headbutt Marco Materazzi? And what did Materazzi say to make ZZ blow his top?

The debate over Zidane’s jawdropping act of violence has overshadowed the Azzuri’s penalty shoot-out triumph. But more to the point, the heaping of retrospective significance on to the incident has rather spoilt our enjoyment of what must go down as one of the most dramatic headbutts in footballing history. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we football fans love to watch freeflowing ‘olé football’, but if that’s not possible then we’ll settle for a good old punch-up instead. And what better setting for a ruck than the World Cup final? The game itself was petering out as a footballing spectacle and was badly in need of a moment of inspiration. It was entirely fitting, therefore, that the most celebrated footballer of our generation should light up the world’s greatest sporting stage with an act of pristine brutality.

Why? That’s the question the world has been asking all week. ‘Why?’ was my initial reaction too when I saw the TV replays. Not why did he do it, but why butt Materazzi in the chest? It was a beautifully executed assault, for sure, but why didn’t he aim for the head? It was inexplicable. In the ensuring furore this rather fundamental question has been overlooked.

The initial media reaction to Zidane’s dismissal was one of horror mingled with sadness. Football legends like Zidane aren’t supposed to act like thugs. Some commentators were outraged that Zidane was given the player of the tournament award. Others feared that Zidane might have blown his chances of soccer sainthood, that he might forever be remembered for his momentary loss of self-control rather than for his sporting achievements.

They need not have worried. Football fans adore their heroes, flaws and all. In fact, far from damaging their reputations, their flaws often serve to enhance their allure. Georgie Best loved the birds and booze. Maradona shovelled coke up his nose. Eric Cantona kung-fu kicked a fan. Wayne Rooney allegedly paid for sex with grannies. All bad boys and all still idolised for their footballing genius regardless of their conduct. It was no surprise, therefore, that the hordes of French fans, who greeted the team on their return to Paris, chanted ‘Zizou, Zizou’ in honour of their disgraced captain.

But it’s not just the French fans who have been prepared to forgive Zizou. The initial revulsion at Zidane’s headbutt has been superseded by a media inquiry into Materazzi’s provocation. Such is the reverence for Zidane among the soccerati that Materazzi has been recast as the villain of the piece, accused of vile and possibly racial provocation. A French Football Federation source has been quoted as saying: ‘It takes a lot to provoke Zidane, racist abuse is normally what does it.’ The French anti-racist group SOS Racisme, citing ‘several very reliable sources’ that Materazzi called Zidane a ‘terrorist’, has called for FIFA to take action against the Italian defender. Likewise, a spokesman for the Kick It Out campaign in Britain has said: ‘If this is proven to be true, then Materazzi should face severe sanctions for such a vicious and hateful comment.’

If there are any winners in this whole sorry saga then it must be the lipreading profession. Every newspaper seems to have employed a lipreader to decipher Materazzi’s words. Depending on which lipreader you choose to believe, Materazzi may have called him a ‘dirty terrorist’; or ‘the son of a terrorist whore’; or said that Muslims are ‘terrorist bastards’; or that Zidane’s sister was a prostitute; or else wished ‘an ugly death’ on all his family.

The only conclusion I would draw from these contradictory interpretations is that lipreading is about as scientific as palm-reading. Zidane has now broken his silence and claimed that Materazzi repeatedly made ‘very personal’ insults about his mother and sister. However, he didn’t reveal the exact words and it is still not clear whether there was any racial dimension to the taunts.

The attempt to find a noble rationale for a moment of madness typifies the soccerati’s quest for higher meaning in football. The intelligentsia wants its football heroes to be great artists, whose occasional excesses can be excused as the behaviour of brooding tortured geniuses. Better still if violent assault can be reinterpreted through race-tinted spectacles as a blow against racial provocation.

There are very obvious parallels with the reaction to Eric Cantona’s kung-fu assault on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons in 1995. The initial clamour for Cantona to be banned from football very quickly gave way to the demonisation of Simmons as a racist thug. Simmons is reported to have screamed ‘fuck off back to France, you French motherfucker’ at the Manchester United player, and it wasn’t long before Cantona’s politically correct acolytes had reinterpreted his rather comical kung-fu kick as an anti-racist act. One Cantonista even declared that the kung-fu kick was an ‘instinctive expression of a flawless moral judgement’.

Even though the racial provocation charge is unproven, Materazzi is still seen as the guilty party for insulting Zidane’s family. But Zidane should have been used to these kinds of slurs, having played in Italy for years. As profanity scholars will tell you, incest and prostitution are common motifs in the lexicon of Italian insults. Professional footballers ought to be resilient enough to ignore such needle. All of which makes me think that what made Zidane lose it was not the taunts about his family, but something else that was even more offensive.

My own theory is that what Materazzi actually said was, ‘you play like an Englishman’. And that’s an invitation for a Glasgow kiss if ever I’ve heard one.

Read on:

spiked-issue: World Cup 2006

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