Saturday, July 15, 2006

Requiem for a Thug

It is six days since France lost the World Cup but the loss, and Italy's win, has been overshadowed by the Zidane-Materazzi incident. Zidane went on Canal+ on Wednesday night and explained what set him off, and apologised for his actions, while saying that he did not regret them. Since then the man has been mercilessly pilloried in mainly the world's anglophone media for not maintaining his sang froid. A letter in yesterday's Herald Tribune from a New Yorker declared that if Zidane played in the NBA, he would have to headbutt somebody ten times in every game, a toe-curlingly smug remark from an armchair observer that misses the point that Zizou himself probably felt the felt the need to headbutt an opponent ten times in every game he ever played too. Zidane has been sent off fourteen times in his career, including the game against Villareal that featured in the excellent film Zidane: A Portrait of the Twenty-First Century by the video artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parrano, where Zidane provides an extraordinary close to the action by getting dismissed at the end of a mass brawl. The man's career seemed to be made for the grand narrative and that is why I am more forgiving of him that many of the fools that are calling the great man a thug and a poor example to his younger fans.

Like the writer to the IHT mentioned above, a Canadian I know (and an England supporter and apologist for Wayne Rooney's stamp on Ricardo Carvalho) claimed that mother insults are par for the course in the National Hockey League and nobody loses their cool for that. As well they might be. People however are missing the racist tinge to Materazzi's taunt; though Zidane did not repeat what the Italian said to him, he did confirm, when asked by Le Monde, if the allegations published by The Sun - "Everyone knows you're the son of a terrorist whore" - were true . Again I have heard hair-splitters say that this is a vague insult and that, to target somebody on account of their religion cannot be racist because "Islam is not a race" (I also heard this argument repeated many times last January during the Danish Mohammed cartoons affair and it is one of the most bone-headed, reductive rationales I have ever encountered). To call somebody a terrorist because of a vague racial association is racist and cannot be considered in any other fashion (West Ham fans were reprimanded last year by the FA for chanting 'suicide bomber' at Tottenham's Egyptian striker Mido), and it hardly matters that Zidane is not actually Arab, but Kabyle. Which then begs the question, how often is racism tolerated in the NBA, the NHL, in Premiership grounds? Should Zidane have taken it as 'all part of the game' as those apologists for monkey-chanting in Spain and Italy say it is? The former England and Liverpool winger John Barnes, who was subjected to vicious racial abuse by fans throughout the 1980s, said once that "being asked does racial abuse affect you is like being bitten by a shark and being then asked if it hurts." There will be people that snap in those circumstances, and Zidane is only the most high-profile, most celebrated case. My only regret is that he did not headbutt Materazzi properly and deprive him of a few front teeth and bring Italy down to ten men with him. Materazzi may yet be punished, after giving his deposition to FIFA in Zurich yesterday. Stripping him of his winner's medal and a two-year-ban to finish his career whould be a good way to go. In the meantime here's an example of what a terribly nice chap he is.

Of course, it may have been the mother-and-sister insult primarily that set Zizou off, and then we are back to the question of whether you allow yourself to get provoked by such a thing. I would argue that in some countries where such insults are bandied about so indiscriminately as to have almost lost their effect, people are less convinced as to their offensiveness. For a North African Kabyle to take it from an Italian might demand more patience. Nobody is saying that Zidane was not foolish, nor is anybody invoking a suspension of the law: he got rightly sent off and it probably cost France the World Cup. FIFA can even take the Golden Ball away from him if they like; he won't be too upset and he hardly deserved to win it anyway. But I can understand why he did what he did.

The French comedian Jamel Debbouze this week eloquently defended Zidane , quoting Camus' declaration that he loved his mother more than justice, and he suggested that Zidane's mother meant more to him than the World Cup. It does not detract from the foolishness of Zidane's deed but I do think that Camus (the former goalkeeper, of course) would have appreciated his fellow Franco-Algerian's gratuitous act. A letter to Libération compared Zidane to another great existential hero, Billy Budd, from Herman Melville's eponymous novella, who is punished for the rash killing of his sadistic superior officer.

In order to see what sort of people are coming out against Zidane in France, have a look at this piece from Libé; the Front National's newspaper had the headline "CIAO VOYOU" ('voyou' meaning 'thug'). Moi, je suis avec le voyou.


Big Dave said...

I had heard another possible scenero, which was much less sinister (taken from the Daily Show.) Zidane was actually helping Materazzi by helping to dislodge an 'e-spicy meat-a-ball-a' from his esophogas.

Why are we all so quick to blame?