Richard Furlong4 Comments


Richard Furlong4 Comments

About the incident itself, there’s not much more to say.

But remember how it felt to watch the most gifted player of his era head-butt an opponent in the World Cup final. Writing them now, those words still feel outlandish. A national team captain, the poster boy for his country’s uneasy racial unity, got sent off in football’s biggest game and, in doing so, called time on his own remarkable playing career. That’s not to mention the panenka.

Even ten years after the fact it’s enormous, and, because of that enormity, this instinctive, instant gesture has been repeated, revised and reframed in a dozen different lights, co-opted for a dozen different agendas. To pick apart the various interpretations today, it’s hard to know whether the act took a God-like superstar and made him human, or transformed a simple sportsman into the unwitting plaything of destiny, the hero in his own modern Greek tragedy.

Despite the use of lip-readers it will likely never be known exactly what was said in the build-up to the head-butt. Marco Materazzi’s version is that when he grabbed Zinedine Zidane’s shirt, Zidane told him that he could have it after the game if he was so keen to take it, to which the Italian replied I’d prefer your whore of a sister”. Zidane claims Materazzi also insulted his mother, and that he was racially abused throughout the game.

However murky the provocation Zidane’s wordless reckoning was clear, captured on film and catapulted around the world. Indeed, over 700 million people caught the coup de boule live in all its brutal, mute glory. But, if Zidane decided in that highly-mediatised moment to bypass language altogether, plenty was said afterwards on his behalf.

In that typically French fashion, the discussion quickly moved from the sporting sphere to being framed in the language of philosophy, race, history, literature and sociology. Coming from a society that places such value on analysis and critical thinking, it’s small wonder that football is now little more than a springboard for wider reflections on the incident.

Unsurprisingly, though, the first to weigh in were sports journalists. Their in-the-moment analysis pointed to the unpredictable force, the simmer, the lack of self-control that had earned Zidane 14 red cards across his career. It was talked of in terms of la rupture: he had “blown a fuse”, the victim of an “unforeseeable fit of rage”. The “Zidane time-bomb” had exploded.

Not for the first time, journalists painted Zidane in the context of an upbringing he could seemingly never escape. He went back to being the “bad-tempered big shot from round the way” whose tough upbringing taught him that problems were best settled with brute force. He was, once again, “l’enfant de Marseille”.

But Zidane was also a hero in France. With him Les Bleus had dominated football, winning the World Cup and the European Championships. The press understood that his reactions on the pitch had always been “instinctive, immediate, spontaneous”, and that spontaneity and self-expression came from the same elemental place as his quickness to temper.  As L’Equipe pointed out, he was “a primary being…in the positive sense of the term”.

Zidane himself would point out that “I am a man above all”, and this language of masculinity crops up repeatedly around the incident. His flaws had always been understood in France: this was a man capable of genius but he was ultimately just that: a man. Lilian Thuram would echo the sentiment and the press were quick to pick up the baton: “Zidane is a man, with all the faults of human beings.” Indeed, it wasn’t long before they saw themselves as guilty of expecting too much from him. As Charente-Libre put it, “the habit we would have him wear is just too big for him”.

Before long this overspill of masculinity moved from being excuse or explanation, to a triumph of loftier values. For certain critics, the violence became a moment of brutal romanticism, a rallying against the cynical image of the game presented by the Italians. In refusing to quell his aggressive side, Ouest-France commented on how “Zidane put his amour-propre (self-worth) before glory”.  The Italians won the trophy, reduced to nothing more than a “metal globe”, but to the French went the worthier, if more nebulous, “essence of football”.

Theatre critic Anne Delbée entered the fray, drawing on classical references to compare Zidane and Materazzi to Hector and Achilles. Zidane, like Hector, is defeated but retains his honour, escaping the “temptation to be mediocre, to lower himself to the common law of vulgarity.” His gesture is chivalrous (compared variously to Don Quixote, Cyrano de Bergerac and d’Artagnan), and in preserving his pride his victory is a higher, moral one.

Libération took the idea one step further. In standing up to Italian cynicism, Zidane was also striking a blow against “the false image of football (scandals, corruption, gamesmanship)”. His final, fatal act, his “blistering romanticism”, was celebrated for its purity. He had ripped football from the world of civilised order and given free rein to the animal spirit at the heart of the game. Here, the “respectable, neatly styled” referee becomes the straitjacketed symbol of an upright, uptight institution before which Zidane refuses to kneel. The sport was briefly returned to its primal origins.

In this hyper-masculine world that Zidane inhabited, the language of honour crops up frequently. With the culture of vannes (insults) and the strict code of honour governing the banlieues in France, critics referred once again to Zidane’s background. Journalists were dispatched to the banlieues to gauge reaction, and questions of reparation dominated: “If someone insults your mother, your family, there’s no choice, you react” and “who cares about the World Cup, Zidane protected his honour.”

Against this question of pride and heritage, Zidane’s Algerian roots were brought into play. The Algerian daily paper El Watan referred to the integrity and intimacy of the Kabyl community (from which Zidane’s parents come). The Kabyl code of honour – the nif – dictates the importance of protecting your family and keeping your lineage pure from any form of sullying, verbal or otherwise. While responses varied across North Africa, El Watan felt that this was at the centre of Zidane’s reaction.

In this light the verbal attack by “Materaciste” was a “racist and vulgar act” requiring reparations, and the language used to justify the head-butt is righteous, if not downright zealous. By aiming the blow at Materazzi’s chest, not his head, Zidane’s reaction was a “spectacular, intelligent and controlled blow.  You [Zidane] have acted with moderation and intelligence, all while removing the devilish evil that they tried to implant in your soul: the insult. You are an educator and a humanist.” It’s all quite the leap, from brazen thuggery to a just and measured blow.

Complex post-colonial relationships soon came to the fore. The French public and press had initially condemned Zidane (L’Equipe asked “What will we tell our children, for whom Zidane is an example?”), and had therefore been “ungrateful” according to El Watan. The colonial power accepted the benefits brought by immigrant populations, in this case the brilliance of Zidane, but condemned their faults. Meanwhile the former colonies would recognise both the brilliance of his career and the context of his final act.

The affair now belonged to worlds far beyond football, and, as if to hammer home that point, Fidel Castro joined the discussion. In his eyes, the “Algerian player” had received a double injustice of not only being insulted, but also being sent off when he sought retribution. The dominant Western force – not only Italy but the referee and, by extension, FIFA – had been struck and was visiting its own form of colonial violence on Zidane.

All of which nudges us towards an interpretation in which Zidane’s act does not demonstrate a lack of control, but is entirely deliberate. This was his final match, and, instead of having his career drawn to a close by the referee and the final whistle, he chose the exact moment he would leave the stage forever. Acting on this suicide impulse was, according to Libération, a Nietzschian gesture. In doing this he took his team’s hopes with him and “destroyed everything…[he] decided that everyone would ‘die’ together by his will.” (Nice-Matin)

This kind of philosophical analysis is a proud staple of French cultural life. Zidane’s brand of seemingly intentional yet reckless behaviour was also explained using André Gide’s idea of the acte-gratuit: an irresponsible, apparently meaningless act by which you test the limits of your freedom.

Filmmaker Jean-Philippe Toussaint highlighted the “risky, crazy, rare” mindset that prompted Zidane to try a panenka in such a big game, and the head-butt was cast in a similar light. This was an incomprehensible gesture by a man who saw the game as no one else did and was determined to explore its outer limits.

As time planted the event ever deeper in the cultural domain, interpretations lurched towards the grandiose. Esprit suggested that Zidane’s panenka penalty could be seen as belief of his own invulnerability: he took himself for a God and had so committed the crime of hubris.

Author Luca Caioli cited precedents from Achilles to Rambo to argue that the unreality of the situation meant Delbéeit should be read in a metaphysical context. Anne Delbée chose once again to shroud Zidane in the language of Greek mythology: voluntary or involuntary no longer came into it, because “the Tragedy chose him…[he was an] instrument of the Gods”, chosen to realise a Destiny.

And so we end on pretention and paradox. This was at once a shameful and highly honourable episode, a rash act and a measured display of control. It was a gesture in one short moment that has been picked apart for ten years, and an ugly act of public violence from a private man capable of devastating beauty.

If anything, the scramble to frame Zidane’s actions in the language of so many different causes shows the grip he has on the public imagination. Since 2006 there may have been better players – or, at the very least, there’s been Lionel Messi – and there has certainly been controversy. But it’s a sign of rare stature when something a player does can begin on a football field, travel the world, take up residence in the collective conscience, and, unlike the man himself, simply refuse to be dismissed.


Richard Furlong writes at The Language Of Football.