Wednesday, June 11, 2008

In Praise of Zidane

In a previous post I linked sports with nationalism, sporting dynasties with political empires. Turns out, if you've been watching ESPN lately, their advertising department is even less subtle than I am. ESPN is carrying the Euro '08 soccer tournament and has an ad that runs: "This is not eleven versus eleven... this is nation versus nation."

Don't get me wrong, it's effective. I cry like a baby every time I watch it. It also supports the point I made below: nationalism sells. And it's manipulative. And even a cynic like me gets swept up in it during the World Cup and the Euro.

Which brings me to why I am a huge fan of Zinedine Zidane.

Over his long professional career (1988 to 2006) Zizou proved himself one of the all-time greats. He was the FIFA World Player of the Year three times, led Real Madrid to the Champions League title, led the French national team to World Cup and European championships, won the Golden Ball in 2006, etc., etc. Every important trophy has his fingerprints all over it.

If you watched France's match against Romania on Monday, you saw how much they missed their old captain's creativity and the cohesion he brought to their attack.

But in his final match, playing in the World Cup Final with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders and the president of France watching from the stands, he did the unthinkable. In overtime--after just missing a header that would have won the match--he head butted an opposing defender in the chest and was rightfully ejected from the game.

I was in Paris watching the game: groans of disbelief could be heard all over the city. Without Zidane, France went on to lose on penalty kicks.

Italy won. Big deal.

The only thing anyone remembers from that match was Zidane's flagrant and violent head butt, his famous coup de boule.

He left the match and the sport on that heroic gesture, a gesture that transcended the World Cup and all of sport.

The next morning, French newspaper Libération called Zidane's head butt the final step in the "decoubertinization" of sport. The lofty ideals of the modern Olympics' founder had fallen to earth with Materazzi.

The head butt heard 'round the world still stands as an insult to the entire establishment, a bras d'honneur [the French equivalent of the middle finger] to FIFA, to soccer fans, and to corporate sponsors. It was an act of liberation, of individual triumph over all the nationalistic fervor and idyllic symbolism that had been thrust onto a sport and carried by one man.

Zidane's final dance of defiance was quite simply sublime.


Derek said...

It is interesting to see how national figures impact a country. When I lived in St. Kitts there was a lot of hoopla about Kim Collins - the "World's Fastest Man." He won the world championships with the slowest winning time in a half-century. Not to mention that he beat the next three placers by .01 seconds each. People need a hero, and when one presents itself...sort of...they take it.

Unknown said...

There is no question that he is a great soccer player, but his head butt incident was far less than great.

SM Sprenger said...

Zidane is a soccer genius, but off the field he's an asshole, if not a hood. The headbutt soured his reputation forever.

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