Monday, July 10, 2006


[If you're only interested on my comment on Zidane's headbutt yesterday, skip directly to the 5th paragraph, starting with "back with the story".]

In the world of soccer, French captain Zinedine Zidane is somebody.
Lots have already been said, and a lot more will, about last night's game, the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final between France and Italy. In the world's most watched event, in front of more than a billion people, Zinedine Zidane head-butted an italian player in the chest, and Italy won the World Cup, in this order.

First, congratulations to the Italians, for a beautiful victory. Was it deserved? In yesterday's game, certainly not, but overall, without a doubt. They were the most stable and complete team in the tournament. They might have not beat amazing teams on their way to the final, Germany being the lone exception, and a penalty-shoutoot might not be the fairest way to decide of an outcome, but this is soccer.
Yesterday, France dominated the game. A lot of people said the turning point in the game was at the 103rd minute, when a header from Zidane was saved by the amazing Italian goalkeeper, Buffon. I disagree. I don't believe there was any huge turning point in that game. France had missed a lot of other opportunities, and truth is, they just couldn't finish. Realism has always been their weakness, and after an amazing series of 3 games against Spain, Brazil and Portugal, it came back to haunt them.
We wouldn't be talking about turning point, and fairness, and who deserved what, if France had dominated the whole game. Yeah, sure, the second half and overtime were entirely theirs, but so much happened in the first half-time, when was France was playing so poorly! Had they shown their talent and class right away, I have no doubt they would have taken it.

But let's get back a second on that Zidane header, the one he placed on the ball, on a cross from Willy Sagnol. You need to see it to believe it: the way Zizou was placed, right in front of the goal, the way he soared through the air to kick that ball, and the way he placed it right below the pole was pure genius. As many know, this was Zidane's last game. The best player of his generation signing off with a World Cup Final... This goal was the kind of stuff that creates legends, and in his case, it could have sealed his carreer with the stamp of greatness. But Buffon was there, and he proved he was the best goalkeeper in the world. The hand he placed on the ball changed, I'm sure of it, the fate of two countries, and the life of one man.
Had Zidane scored then, France would have won. He would have taken, for sure, his rightful place among soccer bests, maybe behind Pele and Maradonna, but standing high above Beckenbauer, Platini and Ronaldo. He would have lifted that golden trophy himself, as the french captain, and that picture would have been the front page of every newspaper in the world this morning.

But History is not what you wish, it's merely a succession of facts determined by a hand, a foot, a word, a thought... or a head. After Buffon stopped that goal, Zidane's frustration became apparent. He had been fouled countless times, and the italian players became more and more agressive towards him. Finally, in the 110th minute, as we was arguing with Materazzi, Zizou suddenly turns around and headbutts the italian player in the chest. A minute later, the referee showed him a red card, and just like that, Zinedine Zidane's carreer as a soccer player was over.
It's important to point that, according to different witnesses, no FIFA official saw the incident. The "4th man" had to watch a replay on a tv-monitor, by the side line, to let the main referee know what happened. This might be the strangest part of the story. Video replay is not authorized in soccer. And so, I believe, however obviously guilty he was, Zidane should not have had a red card.

Back to the story, though. Early reports say the french son of algerian-immigrants was called "a terrorist", others that his mother was insulted.
It doesn't matter. However grave might have been Materazzi's insults, it does not explain such a violent, physical response, and it certainly does not excuse it.
Explain, first. I'm not sure anyone can. Sure, we always knew we was short tempered. It wasn't Zizou's first red card for violent behavior. But in previous occasions, he merely acted in the heat of the moment, fighting for the ball or on impulse. Yesterday, images show he clearly had all the time in the world to think. To think that more than 30 cameras could catch him, would catch him. That a billion people were watching. That this was his moment to shine. Not to mention that "thou shall not headbutt a fellow player in the chest". He did it anyway. That's why we cannot explain it.

We can't excuse it because with his act, he let three categories of people down. First, himself. I already said how he tarnished, maybe forever, his legendary status. The images of him assaulting Materazzi are so clear, so poignant, so breathtaking you can trust TV network all over the worlds (except maybe in France) to replay it countless times. Like with 9/11 and the collapse of the twin towers, we can not take our eyes away from the screen, and yet at the same time we wish they'd stop replaying it again, and again, and again. Will people only remember his last world cup final, and not the first? Time will tell.
He then let down his teammates. Without him, the key midfielder, France was enable to score against the italians. Without him, the captain, they did not keep their composure. Without him, the great penalty-shooter, they didn't win the shoot-out. Would anything have been different had he been on the field? Nobody knows.
Finally, and this is the most serious charge, he let everyone else down (except this time, maybe, the italians). Soccer players are role models. They are the children of the world's idols. In schoolyards in Europe and Latin America, on dirt fields in Africa, kids play soccer. It's never red against green, or 5th grade against 4th grade: it's always England Vs Brazil, Juventus Vs Manchester United, France Vs Italy. And you bet there's always one Zidane. You gotta be pretty fast to call dibs on Zidane.
And so I imagine one of the kids watching the game yesterday, as they probably counted for half the billion viewers in front of their TV screen. That kid tuned in to see Zidane, he tuned in to see his idol. And he saw him commit the unforgivable. It doesn't matter what prompted it, what he saw was Zidane being violent, Zidane being mean, Zidane being someone he fears, rather than someone he adores. For him, it was like seeing his parents fighting, his best friends turning his back on him, his headmaster burning his own school.
Will he understand? Will he forgive? In the end, that's what only matters.

I have to say, before signing off, I do feel bad for him. I'm sure he didn't want it, he didn't mean it. But his actions have already had consequences, and he has to assume, and apologize.

Too bad, Zidane could'a had class. Yesterday, he was barely a contender...
Let's face it.

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