The World Cup soccer final, in which Italy eventually beat France and which half the world’s population reportedly watched, will go down in history not so much for the match itself as for the incident that led to the expulsion of the most famous French player, Zinedine Zidane, known throughout France as Zizou.
Zidane, of North African origin, had undoubtedly been the best player of an otherwise lackluster tournament. The 34-year-old star had announced that the cup final would be his last game as a professional, a fitting end to a career that brought him the adulation of his countrymen and great wealth.
Near the end of the game, however, he suddenly lunged at an Italian player, Marco Matarazzi, and felled him with a vicious head-butt. The referee had little choice but to kick Zidane out of the game.
Almost everybody assumed that Matarazzi must have said something to provoke Zidane. One rumor was that Matarazzi had called Zidane a terrorist. Matarazzi later denied this in a most memorable way. “I did not call him a terrorist,” he said. “I am not a cultured person, and I don’t even know what an Islamist terrorist is.”
It is certainly true that Italian footballers do not have a reputation for gentlemanliness on the field. Still, the players of other countries are no exemplars, either (Zidane himself had been sent off 11 times before in his career). Commentary on the incident continued for days in the European press, and the French leftist daily Liberation published the reactions of the young men of one of the banlieues where rioting had broken out in 2005. Of course, the young men may not be representative, though I suspect that they are.
“I don’t know what he [Matarazzi] said, but Zizou certainly wanted to make himself respected. . . . If I insult your mother, your family, I have to react.” Another said, “The Italian treated him as a terrorist, that’s serious. It’s racism.” Another said, “Fuck the cup, Zadane has saved his honor.” Another said, “It was the best goal of the match.”
These views did not confine themselves to the banlieues, however. An Italian wrote a letter to Liberation. “Although I am Italian, I write to you to express my great admiration for Zidane. He was great precisely because of this gesture, which proves that he is a human being before he is a player. It was as if he had said, ‘Enough, you are completely rotten, and I don’t want to finish [my career] beautifully, I prefer my dignity.’”
Not much here about sportsmanship, let alone the need for self-control. Indeed, it conjures up an image of a Hobbesian, pre-social world, in which only a swift resort to violence can preserve a person’s honor, dignity, and self-respect. It seems that material progress does not necessarily entail subtle moral understanding.