For the disenfranchised North Africans in France, Zinedine Zidane was not just a
Unemployment is extremely high in these housing projects. In Lyon, I met hundreds of young people of about my age struggling tremendously just to make ends meet. Their fathers, who had entire families to provide for, were perpetually depressed. Often, they would look at me cynically, knowing I came from a country where it was not considered uncommon to have a complete university education. I stopped introducing myself as a computer engineer or computer analyst early on when I realized that doing so might be considered arrogant.
Those who refused to pacify themselves with drugs resorted to the soccer field. And when the soccer fields were all occupied, as they often were, then the parking lots and basketball courts were good enough. I don't think I ever saw people actually playing basketball on the courts; it was always soccer.
I'd be lying if I said I cared about the World Cup. I only watched one match during the entire tournament, and that was only in a waiting room while I was getting work done on my car. That one match was a somewhat entertaining affair - Portugal vs. The Netherlands - but I didn't know any of the players on either side, and always found soccer to be boring on TV to begin with. But in spite of my apathy, I made it public early on that I was rooting for France, if only because their star was Algerian when I had personally observed the struggles of minorities there.
And France performed admirably, losing only in the World Cup final against Italy in a game I still didn't care enough about to watch.
But the real story, of course, is the headbutt.
The word is that the Zizou headbutt was in response to racist comments. There has been lots of speculation and lip-reading done; while there isn't a definite agreement, it's clear that it was something very nasty. During my time in France, much was said about Zidane's character off the field, that he was calm and humble. The headbutt is perhaps one of the most primitive (and hilarious) forms of attacking someone else, far removed from the persona of someone known for his humbleness.
I'm sure writers and the irrelevantly opinionated will try to derive some deep philosophical parallels from this incident. I've read someone trying to link the incident to European history in World War II. Sports analysts will condemn the man for thinking of his own revenge before the good of the team. Others will applaud him for standing up for a country that has frequently been ridiculed for being weak. And I've already read others ignorantly hanging off the "France sucks" bandwagon, labelling the incident as yet another demonstration of perpetual French failure.
Ultimately, it's about a man, his head, and another man's chest. And when the Italian fell, whatever racist or hateful rhetoric he spewed he said fell with him. And to me, that's worth celebrating.
Update 7.28.2006: A Much Needed Head-Butt | Islamica Magazine
This is a much better article on the non-athletic connotations of the Zidane headbutt. It's actually remarkably similar to what I wrote above, but is clearly written by someone with more interest in the game and the players than myself.