Shocking, unthinkable, infamous, ignominious: these are the words instinctively grasped for in trying to make sense of the act that irrupted into the World Cup final last night. Rarely does an athlete, playing atop so high a mountain of adulation, so utterly confound and defy the hopeful symbolism that has been placed upon him. It was a heavy blow, certainly, to the preformulated narrative about the exploits of multiracial soccer teams repairing the social fabric of European nations. If Zidane was always a reluctant poster boy for that story, he has now supplied the reason: temperamental unsuitability to turning the other cheek. The incident, amplified by taking place in the most watched sports event of the year, nevertheless brutally transcended the game in which it occurred. It will be publicly understood, digested, for days to come. It will lose force, be neutralized, but not without having revealed much.
What did Materazzi say? Could it have been so unfamiliarly offensive that it incited a frenzy? Or was it merely a petty final straw near the end of a long match, a long career, of being insulted for Zidane? Insulting a player to incite is common enough that there’s a word for it: sledging, from cricket, where it’s apparently done with the greatest skill by the Australians. Let’s be blunt: racial insults are the most reliable way to sledge. And Zidane, sadly, gets them not only from Europeans, but in 2001, from Algerians, who stigmatized him as a traitor. Maybe Zidane correctly surmised that no referees were looking, only to got caught by the replay; maybe he was discouraged by Buffon’s save of his last header, and by his injured arm, and went out with some payback.
Zidane, known for violent outbursts, in a 2004 interview: “It’s hard to explain but I have a need to play intensely every day, to fight every match hard. And this desire never to stop fighting is something else I learnt in the place where I grew up. And, for me, the most important thing is that I still know who I am. Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman.”
Will that complex and precarious genealogy now be read as a liability? Does the constant need to “know who I am” make one vulnerable to sledging? Even the attack itself was curiously controlled, unleashed swiftly but with the choice of target (the chest, the heart, even) demonstrating an intent not to injure. Certainly French rightists, already on record against the team’s composition, will want to link Zidane’s hyphenated identity with his unrecuperable failure yesterday as France’s captain and leader. Those defenders of French multiculturalism wishing to argue back will try and explain the matter by a simpler biography: he has a terrible temper. Already, many defenses of Zidane seek to sweep away the raw, disruptive moment last night. This event might, then, fade away into the background, stalemated by insinuations and shamefaced silence in the face of them.
That would mark an occlusion of the dark side revealed by this World Cup, with its surface of friendly national stereotypes amounting to not much more than German efficiency, Brazilian rhythm, English bulldoggedness, and so forth. The sport itself cannot be fully enclosed within the advertisers’ wholesome branding of it: it is deceptively brutal, whatever your opinions on the intentionality of Rooney. Top players being sent off in important matches is the rule rather than the exception. Behind national fervor, for many, lies hatred. And worst of all, of course, is the endemic racism. From my perspective, it’s shocking that Spanish fans are given to making monkey noises at black players, that certain players, after scoring, give Nazi salutes to the skinheads in the crowd, that a widespread opinion holds France doesn’t “deserve to win” because of all the “Africans” on their team. I’m not being sanctimonious; this kind of outright racial prejudice is unutterable in U.S. public discourse, however widely it might be held.
Zidane’s act was also an act of contempt for soccer. It may have clarified his priority for pride and honor over winning. This is equally unfamiliar in the U.S., where sports are so heavily corporate that there is little tolerance for figures who do not, like Michael Jordan, always place the game above all else. Clearly, in European soccer, such divisions cannot be maintained: explosive mixtures of nationalism and race invade the soccer pitch in a more direct way. The celebratory rhetoric of soccer as the global, multicultural sport masks a great deal of ugly nationalist fantaticism, into which the players are necessarily, and unevenly, co-opted.
With what disconsolate combination of ambivalence and contempt must the man who gave his name to an entire generation of French youth have left the field of play? Finally, spare a thought for Thierry Henry, Zidane’s most sublime teammate and the player who leads soccer’s anti-racism campaign. The bravery with which Henry returned from being knocked woozy in the match’s beginning was a sports moment of a kind we are much more familiar with than the astonishing events of the match’s end. After all, it’s only a game, right?
Abbas has some additional thoughts on Zidane and Racism.
See some other Dispatches.