By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
IF ANYTHING WAS MORE UNEXPECTED than Zinédine Zidane head-butting an Italian defender during Sunday’s World Cup final, it was the reception the red-carded star received the next day at a dinner honoring the French team for being runners-up.
“Dear Zinédine Zidane,” purred President Jacques Chirac. “What I want to express at perhaps the most intense and difficult moment of your career, is the admiration and affection of the entire nation — and its respect too. You are a virtuoso, a genius of world football and also a man of heart, of commitment and conviction. That is why France admires and loves you.”
Wow. Just try to picture Dubya honoring any team that didn’t win, let alone praising LeBron James if he’d blown Olympic gold by cold-cocking some Serb in O.T.
Now, this being Chirac, such a plummy encomium was not without its political dimension. Not only had Zidane endorsed Chirac’s presidential bid over racist xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen — not a hard call for the son of Algerian immigrants — but given France’s racial turmoil, any shrewd leader would offer a healing embrace to the country’s most admired symbol of multicultural hope. But the president’s praise for Zidane also tapped into something at the heart of the nation’s culture. The French understand — and therefore forgive — the artistic temperament.
Zidane is, as Chirac said, a virtuoso. Not merely an artiste du ballon, a really good player, but an athletic genius who possesses the gift that soccer fans worship the most. In a fluid team sport that deliberately makes its ball hard to control, Zidane can control a whole game with his soft touch, wide vision and uncanny precognitive sense of the action — he passes the ball to open spaces before they appear. Although he wasn’t this World Cup’s best player (that was the impregnable defender Fabio Cannavaro), he won the Golden Bowl by playing the most beautiful game. Zidane became the cup’s big story, not least here in America, where ESPN and ABC desperately needed somebody to market once the U.S. team bombed out. Who better than a superstar who was not only retiring (ah, manufactured nostalgia) but had that shaved pate and eagle’s beak that made him so easy to spot on TV.
Decades from now, the 2006 World Cup will be remembered (outside Italy, anyway) as the year of Zidane’s noggin. It was his heady play that pushed France into the finals. It was his scorching header in overtime that would’ve deservedly won France the game had Italy’s goalkeeper Buffon not made a great save that prompted Zidane to bellow with fury. And, of course, it was that famous head — bashing the chest of Marco Materazzi — that got him ejected, perhaps costing his team the cup. Even now, people are talking about Zidane’s head — and what could possibly have been going through it to make him attack Materazzi.
“What will we tell our children?” read a plaintive headline in the sports paper L’Equipe, whose grown-up writers predictably disguised their own disillusioned hero worship by pretending to worry about the kids. “How could this happen to a man like you?”
One can imagine the vast army of French intellectuals, who famously love Les Bleus, spending the next few years trying to answer that very question in articles, essays, maybe even books — Bring Me the Head of Zinédine Zidane! And why not? Sartre spent years anatomizing Gustave Flaubert in his huge, crazy book The Family Idiot, and that enterprise had the advantage that its subject was a born verbalizer who left behind hundreds of thousands of words for Jean-Paul to play with. Not so the enigmatic Zidane, a private, laconic fellow who didn’t hurry to reveal what Materazzi said to him that triggered the assault. Did the guy insult his mother? Make another of the racial slurs (“dirty terrorist”) that are a disgusting feature of European football? Even so, Zidane has surely been hearing such crap all his life.
Of course, he has never been the anodyne commercial icon that the media so badly want him to be — a cool football style does not imply a cool character. Bemoaning the attack, a sportswriter for London’s Independent insisted, “It felt like an unholy denial of everything he represents.” Everything he represents? Zidane has pulled similar stunts before — stomping a Saudi during the ’98 World Cup, head-butting a Hamburg player during a Champions League match. He is a man, not a god.
He let himself become prey to the cup final’s frustrations — exhaustion, an injured shoulder, his cascading annoyance with all the chippy not-quite-fouls at which the Italians are the world’s acknowledged masters. Add to that Zidane’s bitter disappointment at Buffon’s save, which kept his final game from the storybook ending that he, like so many people, had probably grown to expect. All this was doubtless intensified by the rich sense of entitlement that every superstar wears like an Armani protective shield. Just as Kobe starts freaking out when he sometimes doesn’t get calls that nobody else on the court would ever get, so Zidane spent too much of Sunday’s final on the turf demanding the ref’s whistle.