The Zidane Tragedy

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.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.

10 thoughts on “The Zidane Tragedy”

  1. I am sure as he drew back he heard the sucking sound of millions of dollars of potential future endorsements from big name companies getting vacuumed out of his future bank accounts. What an idiot move by a great player. This would be the equivalent for US non-soccer fans of Michael Jordan in game 7 of NBA finals of his last season punching Bill Lambeer (no matter how much he deserves it..ha) and getting ejected. What a sorry ending for Zidane, but alas it isn't the first time, just ask the Saudi whose back he stomped on in a past world cup.

  2. I still wished Zizou didn't do that.
    I hope there will be a clear information on what Materrazi said to him. I think Materrazi should be ashamed of himself, too.
    France played better yesterday.

  3. "I think Materrazi should be ashamed of himself, too."
    WTF?
    And I agree with jordan that this isn't the first time. But hey… if the fans forgot the previous incident maybe they'll forget this one, too. They conveniently forget that soccer is incredibly boring unless Zidane or someone like him head butts someone else.
    I just really, really question Steven's state of mind when he identifies so much with Zidane. Hell, you might as well feel sad for the Portuguese becaue they didn't dive better. This is what Zidane is Why is it such a surprise? And why does nadnuts feel the need to deflect this onto Matarazzi? Hell, when Matarazzi hit the dirt, my first thought was "hey, that fall actually looked real."

  4. It was really sad. Then he did not participate in the ending celebrations with his team (was he asked not to?). Good news, upon returning to France, he was front and center meeting the prime minister and all – as it should be.

  5. Okay, Zidane did the wrong thing, obviously. But if the World Champion Headbutter head-butted me in the chest, what's the worst that could happen? I'd be out of breath.
    I don't think it was 'vicious', it was more 'senseless' or 'stupid'. Especially since he took himself out of the penalty kick portion. The red card was deserved. Tempers run hot, soccer is a contact sport, and the stakes yesterday were very high.

  6. I wish he hadn't done it too, but . . . Whenever I've seen international matches the Italians play dirty, like the Argentines of Maradona's day.
    And I think the referee should carry some of the burden here. This ref was strictly from hunger. He'd screwed up an earlier round already, and after the penalty kick the French couldn't get a call from him on anything the Italians did, no matter how ridiculous. This would have been a completely different game if the ref was the one who did the Brazil-France game.

  7. Contrast the final to the Germany-Portugal game the day before: clear results during regular time; open, aggressive play; little diving; almost no time lost to fake injuries or handing out cards. That was a far better game than the final, marred by the Italians' usual classlessness, by Zidane's headbutt and the absurdity of deciding a championship on penalty kicks.
    Speaking of disgusting fouls, how about the elbow that opened a cut on McBride's face in the US-Italy game? That was dirty enough to have gotten a boxer DQ'd. Sadly, that move is closer to the heart of how Italy played this tournament than any amount of fancy passing.

  8. I think Zidane made an act that will be rememberd forever, this guy knew how to be history by playing an exelent football and he know to remain in history also in this manner i can only say that Zidane is being loved by everyone no matter what he did in the final match vs italia
    P.S: I just wanted from Zidane to kick Materazzi on the face and not in the chest

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