What can one say about the vicious Zidane head-butting incident that marred the final of the World Cup other than that it was tragic. Here was a man who would have—even in defeat—guaranteed himself an indelible place in the history of soccer. No one—not me, not anyone—believed that France had a chance to go as far as it did in the 2006 World Cup. France’s team, and Zidane himself, was the football equivalent of a clapped-out old Renault, its decline reflecting that of the nation under whose flag it fought. And yet…with a remarkable victory over Brazil, and another over the (lucky just to be there) Portugese, everything was set for a remarkable shift in narrative. Zidane, suddenly recovering the powers that all had thought lost forever, takes his team to the finals. An honorable second-place finish would still have allowed Zidane to go into retirement, or perhaps a year or two in the MLS to bring his renown to our shores before hanging up his cleats forever. For France, either honorable defeat or victory would have given the nation a much-needed shot in the arm.
And then…it happened. Watching at home on television, I could barely believe what I saw. An attack wholly unambiguous, as vicious as any I have ever seen on a football pitch. Had he not been given the red card, it would have been a travesty. What could possibly explain such an outburst of naked aggression, at the very moment when Zizou’s place in history, and his nation, was assured. Surely he was tired, and frustrated by the inability of France, despite their dominance of a clearly leg-weary Italian squad, to put the ball in the net. Perhaps Materrazi said something to him, to go along with his relatively innocuous tweaking of Zidane’s chest, that was so beyond the pale that he thought that it simply could not be allowed to stand. Perhaps this sense of streetyard honor was this great hero’s Achilles’ heel. I am quite sure that we will never, ever really know.
All I can say is that, watching this replayed over and over again on television, I felt sick. Part of this was moral revulsion at the foul, which was wholly beyond the pale. But also, something else. I felt a sense of aching sympathy for Zidane. I am sure that at the moment that he drew his head back from Materrazi’s chest, he realized what he had done, not only to his team, but to his own legend. Every beautiful shot on goal, every gorgeous pass, every elegant weaving down the pitch, was suddenly sullied. No one could remember these moments and simply smile, remembering that he had seen one of the greatest men ever to grace the world’s greatest game. Now, every time one thought of Zidane, that horrible, senseless attack would be the first thing that came to mind. Zidane had done to himself what no other man on the pitch could do to him—transform him from hero to villain. I’m sure that, as he walked, deflated down into the locker room, he realized what he had done. He was brought down not by something outside himself, but by a defect of character that lurked within.
Football is, in and of itself, meaningless, a remarkably silly thing for grown men and women to spend so much time occupying themselves with. What transforms it, what makes it something much more, is narrative interwoven with morality. We watch soccer not just for the beauty of the sport, although beauty there certainly is. We also watch it because of the moral drama that is played out among twenty-two men. Today, in Germany and across the world, we saw possibly the saddest such drama that any of us will have the bad fortune to witness. I do not envy Zizou’s effort to find sleep tonight, or in the nights to come.