After the head butt, the fallout

If Materazzi is punished for dissing Zidane, it could signal the beginning of the end of that venerable football tradition: ‘verbals’.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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I return once again to the question of That Headbutt. One of the worrying repercussions from L’affair Zidane, and one that has attracted very little critical comment, is FIFA’s investigation into Marco Materazzi’s provocation.

Last week Materazzi was questioned by FIFA’s disciplinary committee about his part in the world’s most talked-about headbutt. It is reported that FIFA could potentially hand down a two-match ban and a £2,200 fine for the medieval-sounding crime of ‘dishonour’. The punishment could be increased if Materazzi’s provocative jibes are found to have been racist. If the Italian defender is punished for dissing Zidane’s family, it could signal the beginning of the end of that venerable football tradition of ‘verbals’.

Players are now routinely punished for inflammatory goal celebrations but if player-on-player needle gets the red card, it would mark another victory for the creeping mind-your-language culture.

Zidane claims that Materazzi insulted his mother and sister. Materazzi admits to insulting the French captain but denies calling him a terrorist or insulting his mother. ‘I am ignorant, I don’t even know what an Islamic terrorist is’, he insisted. ‘I did not bring up Zidane’s mother; for me a mother is sacred.’ Materazzi’s protestations of innocence might not sound terribly convincing but he does have a point when he says: ‘It was the kind of insult you will hear dozens of times and just slips out of the ground.’

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that he did call Zidane’s mother a ‘whore’. Should such ‘trash talk’ be a punishable offence? I don’t think so. Sexual slurs are an established weapon in the armoury of the wind-up merchant. As Materazzi’s agent Claudio Vigorelli has pointed out, ‘If they want to attack a player for what he keeps saying on the pitch, they will be very busy in the future because it’s quite normal that players shout to each other in a game – especially when it’s such a stressful game.’

It makes no sense for the football authorities to attempt to define what might be acceptable or unacceptable forms of provocation. Although Zidane didn’t reveal what Materazzi actually said, he complained that the slurs about his mother and sister were ‘very personal’. But, like it or not, insults do tend to be very personal. Football isn’t just a contest of skill, tactics or athleticism; it is also a psychological battle. Football’s aristocratic founding fathers might have considered it to be ‘ungentlemanly’, but the dark art of needle is, as I see it, an entirely legitimate tactic in professional sport.

In cricket they call it ‘sledging’ and, although sniffed at by cricket’s traditionalists, it is now an integral feature of the game. Although cricket has a more sporting and gentlemanly reputation, there are no holds barred when it comes to backchat. Top-class sledging usually involves a combination of razor-sharp wit, personal insults and unadulterated vulgarity. For example, when Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga called for a runner during a one-day international against Australia, wicketkeeper Ian Healey piped up: ‘You don’t get a runner for being an overweight, unfit, fat cunt.’

Another classic example of the genre was an exchange between Aussie paceman Glenn McGrath and Zimbabwean Eddo Brandes. ‘Hey, Brandes, why are you so fucking fat?’, shouted McGrath. ‘Cos every time I fuck your wife she gives me a biscuit’, replied the former chicken farmer. In professional cricket, there’s an unwritten code that what is said on the pitch stays on the pitch. Sledging is seen as acceptable on the field of play but not in the pavilion afterwards – a point lost on those who want personal abuse and obscenity completely excised from sport.

If Materazzi ‘crossed a line’, as some commentators have suggested, it’s a line that has been crossed repeatedly by professional sportsmen down the years. Were he to be punished for doing what all footballers normally do – insulting an opponent – a very dangerous precedent would be set. I’d even be tempted to start a Campaign to Defend Provocation in Football. Needle might be nasty, crude and tasteless but – bear with me on this – the urge to provoke is a fundamentally democratic and egalitarian impulse.

Winding up a more skilful opponent is one of the few weapons lesser talented players have at their disposal. In recent years the odds have been stacked in favour of flair players thanks to countless FIFA edicts. Aggressive tackling has been all but outlawed and, consequently, provocation is one of the few legitimate tactics left to lumbering defenders. If you can’t clobber your fleet-footed opponent you can at least provoke him into losing his cool and taking a swing at you.

In short, needle is a great leveller. Or as the French might say (if they weren’t so damn precious about a bit of name-calling): ‘Liberté, égalité, obscénité.’

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spiked-issue: World Cup 2006

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