The strange case of l’affaire Zidane

His headbutt might have been a moment of madness – but the storm of shrill reactions to it seems to have turned into an endless outpouring of crazed emotions.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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France has just marked the centenary of the climax of l’affaire Dreyfus – the infamous framing of a Jewish army officer that stands as a key moment in the development of modern French politics and society. To judge by the overreactions to it over the past week, in a hundred years some might be tempted to mark the centenary of l’affaire Zidane as a similar milestone.

In the week since Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final, l’affaire Zidane appears to have taken over the world (especially the media world). It was certainly a jaw-dropping moment. But still, it was only a flare-up in a football match – and a bloodless one at that, with the other big shock being, as Duleep Allirajah argues elsewhere on spiked, that he bizarrely butted the Italian in the chest. (Zidane is clearly not the player he once was – last time he butted an opponent, the German player in question ended up with a fractured cheekbone and concussion.) Nobody was killed, as Boris Becker once reminded the hysterical press corps after losing a Wimbledon final. In normal times the storm should have subsidised soon enough, or at least retreated to the sports section of the media.

But these are not ‘normal’ times for news. If anything the story and the heated debates about what Zidane did and why have grown in intensity since the actual event, to the point where his Wednesday press conference was reported as if it were a presidential statement on the declaration of war or peace. Indeed, it has completely overshadowed the actual French President’s traditional Bastille Day address on Friday.

Zidane’s butt might have been a moment of madness. But l’affaire Zidane, the storm of shrill reactions and counter-reactions to it, seems to have turned into an endless outpouring of crazed emotions.

What is it really all about? In one sense, it looks like the latest manifestation of the tendency I have previously identified as ‘soccerism’ – the attempt to turn football into some sort of metaphor for society, and even to depict it as the cause of and possible solution to social problems. With the emptiness of public and political life, football has been blown up out of all proportion and brought on as a substitute for anything more substantial, as one thing that can bring people together – a phenomenon well illustrated by the ubiquity of the World Cup over the past month.

The attempted politicisation of the World Cup was evident long before Zidane put his head down. Before a ball had been kicked, we noted on spiked how the tournament was being turned into a focus for all of the fearful, misanthropic and miserabilist currents of contemporary European politics, with scare stories linking the football to everything from domestic violence to people-trafficking and even global warming (see Now it’s the Football of Fear, by Mick Hume). We also reported on how the German authorities were effectively trying to reorganise their society around the World Cup (see Achtung! Kick politics and morality out of football, by Matthias Heitmann).

It is against this background that we can understand how, since the World Cup ended, many have sought to elevate Zidane’s headbutt into a symbol of other fashionable concerns in France and Europe. We have been told that that dip of his balding head embodies everything from the need to ban hate speech and combat Islamophobia, to the importance of celebrating cultural identities and identifying with victims. L’affaire Zidane speaks less about the real importance of Zidane and football than it does about the trivialisation of everything else.

Of course, in the immediate aftermath of his sending off, there was the predictable harrumphing about shame and disgrace from the robotic pundits, many of them reading into it their own invented interpretations. But as l’affaire Zidane grew larger in the days that followed, the striking thing has been how pro-Zidane apologists have come to dominate the discussion. The player himself is a prime candidate for this treatment. Zindane is a genuine popular hero in France among everybody from disaffected immigrant youth to philosophers and politicians, and he is also beloved of Britain’s own middle-class soccerati, who much prefer the image of the strong-jawed France captain of Algerian descent and his suave team-mate Thierry Henry to the rough English charms of a Wayne Rooney.

But there have been wider forces at work here than Zidane’s personal appeal. He has been set up as the figurehead of a proxy political crusade. Thus many leapt, on the dubious and highly contradictory ‘evidence’ of lip-readers, to claim that his butt was a blow for justice provoked by Materazzi calling him a terrorist, or even the son of a terrorist whore, and pouring racist insults on his head. In their fevered imaginations, a half-cocked butt in the lungs thus becomes a mighty blow against racism in football and society.

These arguments have pushed all the right buttons to resonate in today’s climate. Zidane becomes the militant wing of FIFA’s self-righteous, posturing crusade against racism in the game, exemplified by those toe-curling speeches about fighting ‘evil’ that the team captains were forced to make before big matches – David Beckham’s most embarrassing performance of all. The allegation that Zidane was goaded into it by racist abuse also ties into the Europe-wide campaign to outlaw anything deemed as ‘hate speech’, an illiberal attitude that has put anti-racists in the front rank of the new movement for more censorship. Thus the focus quickly shifted to demanding that something-must-be-done about the wicked Materazzi – a demand to which the ban-happy football authorities now seem happy to respond.

There is some history of trying to use football as a substitute for combating racism in France. After Zidane’s France won the World Cup in 1998 with a multi-ethnic squad, their success was widely interpreted as marking a big breakthrough for integration and unity in French society. That naïve notion was thoroughly exposed by last year’s riots by disaffected youth from immigrant communities in suburbs around Paris and other French cities.

Now, however, some seek to reinterpret Zidane’s action as evidence that the rioters too were in the right. If we sympathise with the great Zizou for being driven to such extremes by racism, they ask, why should we not do the same with the protesting youth? At least one commentator has suggested that Zidane’s butt shows we need to set aside arrogant notions of Western fair play and better understand the identity formed by ‘Berber culture’ to see why he was on the side of the angels.

Such is the zealotry behind these interventions that, even when Zidane (and of course Materazzi) eventually denied that there had been mention of terrorism or racist insults in their heated exchanges on the pitch, it did nothing to defuse them. They still insisted that, almost regardless of the facts about what actually might have happened, Zidane had helped to ‘raise awareness’ of racism in football and elsewhere – as if anybody with a brain in the West could possibly have their awareness of such matters raised any further.

And so l’affaire Zidane has gone on and on, to the point where French philosophers have attempted to interpret the butt as an ‘existential act’. One leading philosophical light, Bernard Henri-Levy, modestly described the footballer as a ‘man of providence, saviour, titan, valiant knight, a blue redeeming angel dressed in white’, albeit with a fatal flaw – just like Homer’s Achilles, of course.

Let’s get serious. But me no buts, there is no deeper political or cultural meaning in a headbutt. What have been far more revealing of broader problems are the reactions during the ongoing l’affaire Zidane.

The desire to read meaning into everything today is a symptom of the absence of anything meaningful of substance at the heart of society. The attempt to politicise something like football is one result of the demise of proper debate where it belongs in the political sphere. And the desire to turn a sporting hero into a major victim and a martyr is a graphic illustration of the emotion-driven state of public life.

Anybody who plays or watches football could surely immediately relate to what Zidane did, without trying to turn it into a political statement. Football is the home-ground of the id, the more irrational emotional side of the brain, and it is quite capable of making hot-headed juveniles of us all at any moment during the 90 minutes (plus extra time and penalties). But in the cold light after the final whistle, we calm down.

Yet typically for the way things work today, the post-match reaction to Zidane’s momentary spasm has managed to ramp up the emotionalism further. The suggestion that Zidane ‘couldn’t help himself’ as a victim of colonial arrogance, that he wasn’t really responsible for his actions, only infantilises him. That was an impression sadly reinforced by the man himself during his two pseudo-presidential TV interviews, where he said he hit Materazzi on the pitch for insulting his mother and sister (‘You disrespectin’ my familee?’ as the stroppy teenager on the Catherine Tate show would say), and, while apologising, blamed the Italian as ‘the guilty one’.

At the end of it all, the great player was left looking like an overgrown adolescent who had lashed out in an emotional gesture driven by an overdone sense of victimhood and grievance – so maybe his reactions did have something in common with those nihilistic young terrorists and rioters and after all.

We can all feel for Zidane. But it does neither him nor us any favours to try to turn his poor headbutt into a grand political act or philosophical statement, to trivialise important issues, or to depict one of the few genuine heroes of our time as just another put-upon victim of dark forces. L’affaire Zidane is far more dangerous than any insults or injuries involved in the incident. To paraphrase a famous philosophical statement on a past World Cup: I wish it was all over, but I fear it’s not now.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: World Cup 2006

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Topics Politics


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