Since watching the last forty minutes of last week’s World Cup final, I have to say I am baffled by some of the mainstream media response to Zinedine Zidane’s head butt to Italian defender Marco Materazzi, including the initial — completely one-sided — response of the play by play announcer at the game. We’re supposed to be shocked by and ashamed of the famous, and now retired, French striker, saddened that his career would end in a red card rather than a trophy photo op.
Does the sports narrative always have to end in the same way? Is there only one kind of heroism in sports, one kind of role modelling? Is there nothing to be learned, meaningfully experienced or even entertained by in failure? Does one bad act make a bad guy?
Zidane’s character and career speak for themselves. He was a brilliant player and, for the most part, a model of sportsmanship on the field and off. When he lost it, he took the punishment and generally apologized. When he triumphed, he carried himself with pride but did not gloat. His personal history stands as a metaphor for hope in a new Europe. All that ends with a head butt? Hardly.
Margaret Wente in the Globe today argues that the kind of ‘trash talk’ Zidane experienced from Materazzi is all part of the game, and the true champions resolutely take it without reaction. She then goes on to give us a most facile lesson in sociology. Boys gather together in groups to insult other boys. Sports are just territorial wars played out without weapons. There is no equivalent to trash talking among females (I’m sorry? Can you repeat that one?). Etc.
In the Robert Altman film M*A*S*H, a football game is won partly because an unwitting opponent is verbally goaded into violence and must leave the game. I saw that movie while in high school, loved the strategy and tried it out in the next after-school touch football game. Everytime I lined up opposite Kenny Winter, just as the scrimmage began, I let fly with an insult, a personal one. I think I may have even mentioned his sister at one point. It worked beautifully. Kenny was thrown off his game, I received the best shot to the jaw I’ve ever felt, everyone felt stupid and terrible, and the game ended without a satisfactory resolution. I can’t remember the final score, but I’ve never forgotten how dumb I felt.
How does Materazzi feel about his part in all of this? Well, he’s admitting nothing, but also rather sheepishly imploring FIFA not to punish Zidane further by taking away his tournament MVP award. Enjoy that guilty conscience my man. It’s character building!
True to his nature, Zidane made some great comments yesterday. These are quoted from The Guardian:
“Of course the reaction has to be punished. But if there had been no provocation, there would have been no reaction. If I reacted, it was because something occurred. Do you think that in a World Cup final, 10 minutes away from the end of my career, I would do a thing like that because it pleased me? Never. My action was unforgiveable, but I’m saying to you that the person who committed the provocation should also be punished.”
Now that’s a sports narrative. I’ll take my punishment, thank you. I deserve it. How often do we hear this kind of honesty in sports, or anywhere. He goes on:
“My action was unforgiveable. It wasn’t the right gesture to make. I say this aloud because two or three billion people saw it, and millions of children. I apologise to them, and to their teachers, the people who have to tell them about good behaviour. I have children myself, and I know what it’s like. I will always tell them not to be taken advantage of, and to avoid this kind of situation.”
As a father of boys, I will very happily show them this great man’s moment of failure. I’d like them to get something out of sports other than mindless triumphalism, or dumb social pseudo-analysis.