July 11, 2006

On heroes and headbutts

When I was in France earlier this year, talk had already begun about the World Cup. It was still over a month away, but the passion the French had for the game far exceeded even the passion Canadians have for their hockey. And the millions of immigrants in France beamed with pride that their national hero was of Algerian descent.

For the disenfranchised North Africans in France, Zinedine Zidane was not just a soccer football star; he represented so much more. He was a fighter who got past the prevailing French nationalism, and excelled in his field against seemingly all odds. He grew up in Marseilles, but not the romantic, wine-country Marseilles we might read about. He grew up in the squalid Marseilles slums, among thousands of other second-generation immigrants of North African descent. If the slums in Lyon were any indication (and I'm told that they are), these were not friendly places. From what I saw in Lyon, these housing projects were rife with drugdealers and other shady personalities. The religious ones among them were doing an excellent job to counter the efforts of the social underworld, but they were too few to reach out to everyone.

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.


  1. Stupid move, he lost his mind - and most likely he feels horrible...

    Sticks and Stones and all the rest.

    Win the game, hurt their pride, fill your own.

    Zidane, welcome to the land of the infamous.

  2. Tsk tsk. The chap above stole my cliche. <- "Sticks and stones so forth.."

  3. But at the end of the day, the Italians did win. And Zidane made his final exit from the arena of football with a headbutt, and not a golden cup (or statue, or whatever it is). And to me, thats worth mourning over.

  4. Yeah, good post, Faraz bhai, but I disagree. The Italian player knew Zidane had two yellow cards and purposely incited him. Italy won, France lost and Zidane lost with them. Taking that headbutt was a victory in itself.

  5. I suppose it would have been a greater revenge to have won the game. But would the outcome of the game be drastically different had he not been ejected? There were 10 minutes left, I think, and the loss was in shootouts.

    I guess it's the hockey fan in me who is seeing this differently. The Italian wasn't injured, just surprised. This wasn't a Bertuzzi-style case of vigilante justice; this was a man who just wanted to get a point across. If he wanted to seriously injure Materazzi, he could have done so much worse than headbutt him.

    I suppose if I was a passionate soccer fan, I may have been annoyed. But I've been reading the French press, and none of them seem prepared to demonize Zidane. In fact, they've mostly forgiven him, and congratulated him for his achievements (and even for the headbutt). They're not mourning out there in France, even though the most celebrated trophy in sports fell out of their hands in the last seconds.

    The insults must have been really bad to provoke such a reaction though. Professional athletes have to deal with stuff like that all the time; there must have been some extenuating circumstances that drove the man to such a hilarious display of aggression.

    It means that there is more to life than soccer for Zinedine Zidane; the honour of his family, his race, and his ancestry were more valuable than any trophies. And that's a good thing, unless of course, you're a soccer player.

  6. Zidane may not have done the right thing for his team but I support what he did because of his character - he stood up for something and sent a message to the Italian player (Mazeratti) that insulting Zidane's mother/sister wasn't acceptable.

    If it were any other soccer player, they'd fake an injury or something to try a cowardly red card instead and it was good to see Zidane not do that unlike many of the other players in the tournament who did (ie: Cristiano Ronaldo, most of the Italian team, etc).

  7. The athlete in me is the one who responded. Ultimately, team sports is about teammates - putting team achievement above personal glory. Z's headbutt was selfish. He may have stuck up for his race, family and religion; however, more clearly, he let down his brothers on his team.

    The Italian's comments were clearly offside - all is not fair in love and football. I am glad that I am not a young boy living in France idolizing Zidane because I think that I may be a little confused right now with what is the 'right' thing to do on the soccer field. I also feel greatful that the professional athletes that I idolized growing up were class through and through. The Doug Gilmour of yesterday and the Steve Nash of today.

    Clearly, there are more important things happening in the world...this is my last take on the issue...

    PS Faraz, my friend Mase shares your view - and makes me feel that my ability to emphasize soley on my athletic experience is not entirely enough to truely understand this issue...