The Zidane head-butt: An on-going controversy

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
July 11th, 2006 • 2:46 pm

The shameful head-butt that marked the end of Zinedine Zidane’s footballing career in extra time during the World Cup final last Sunday continues to generate a lot of media coverage and controversy, and the facts suggest that this will continue for quite a while.

The Telegraph has a recap titled “Racism claims force Fifa and Italians on to the defensive” and indeed the organization has now confirmed that it will officially investigate the incident.

The facts are the following.

Following a jersey tug, words were exchanged between Marco Materazzi and Zinedine Zidane. The Italian obviously said something that deeply offended the French playmaker and he retaliated by head-butting him in the chest.

Various media outlets have used the service of proficient lip-readers to try and determine exactly what was said, but the results are remain inconclusive. There are claims that Marco Materazzi called Zidane a “dirty terrorist” or insulted his mother or his sister, but until Zidane gives his own version of events (which he’s supposed to do in the coming days), we won’t really know.

Materazzi himself denies saying anything particularly offensive, and alleges that it was only the usual taunting that goes on during all football games. (This type of thing appears to be more common in Italy. Unfortunately, what also appears to be more common in Italy is openly racist comments and behaviours.)

The BBC quotes Materazzi as saying:

“I am ignorant, I don’t even know what an Islamic terrorist is; my only terrorist is her,” he said pointing to his 10-month-old daughter. “I did not bring up Zidane’s mother; for me a mother is sacred.”

The problem is that, if, in this world in which we live today, Materazzi really doesn’t know what an “Islamic terrorist” is, then he’s more that just ignorant. He’s a complete twit. And this doesn’t reflect well on him at all. You’d expect players representing their own country to have a minimum of education and awareness of the world beyond football. Islamic terrorism is obviously a very sensitive issue these days, especially for citizens of Arab descent. And Materazzi’s own country has been at the forefront of the so-called “war on terror” in recent times.

Maybe he didn’t say anything like this to Zidane on the pitch. But his comments as quoted on the BBC are almost just as bad. And Materazzi’s own recent disciplinary history (including the vicious elbow on Villareal’s Sorin in a recent Champions’ League game) doesn’t make him any more likable either.

Of course, all this doesn’t excuse Zidane’s behaviour. Even if Materazzi is a complete jerk, which he quite possibly is, he’s hardly the only one out there. But if indeed Materazzi’s insults had racist undertones, then obviously FIFA will have do something about it, because you can’t expect campaigns to eliminate racism in football to succeed if the players themselves are not held accountable for this type of comment or behaviour. FIFA’s recent track record is already controversial enough (including the ridiculously insignificant slap on the wrist for Spain’s coach Aragones following his racist description of Thierry Henry, which was actually caught on camera!). The organization can hardly afford to let more incidents slip without punishment.

Then again, if the insults didn’t not involve racism, but still were bad enough to trigger such a reaction in Zidane, would it make sense not to do anything about them? There is taunting, and then there is taunting… Bragging about one’s own achievements or making fun of a player’s flaws are one thing. Personal attacks and insults are quite another.

Much will depend on how Zidane himself deals with the issue now. If the insults had a racist dimension, then he could use this incident as a springboard for a renewed effort to combat racism in football—especially now that he’s retired and presumably will have more time for this type of thing. However, Zidane is particularly notorious for becoming only reluctantly involved in such “extra-curricular” activities. Will this change now that his playing days are over? It remains to be seen…

If the insults did not involve racism, then there is a very real chance that nothing will be done about them, and that players like Materazzi will continue to use them as part of their game. It’s quite shameful, and unfortunately it’s something that spectators are rarely made aware of, so much so that they frequently see behaviours on the pitch that they simply cannot understand.

Will this incident finally reveal the ugly truth and bring about major changes in the behaviour of players on the pitch? It is rather doubtful. If taunting and insults are really such an integral part of the game, then they are not going to disappear overnight, especially since it would be pretty much impossible to enforce any kind of rule about them. (Wireless microphones on every players on the pitch? I don’t think so…) I guess it’s yet another one of these areas where the status quo will remain in place for lack of any realistic alternative.

Speaking of which… Initial coverage of the incident indicated that the ultimate decision by the referee was influenced by video replays seen by officials on the touch line—which would have been a first in football, at least on such a stage, in such an important event. It would have been a watershed. But FIFA was quick to deny this:

“The fourth referee saw the incident with his own eyes and told the referee and the assistant referee directly though their headsets.”

The only problem is that this version doesn’t quite square with what was seen on TV at the time. I remember quite clearly the referee hesitating for a very long time, and then running to his assistant on the touch line to discuss with him, before coming back and showing the red card. Why did he run to the assistant if the person who notified him of the incident was the fourth referee through the headset?

I think that FIFA are going to have to clarify this aspect of the incident as well. Interestingly, it would actually have been quite a good idea to use this incident as a springboard for the introduction of video replays in football refereeing. It was, after all, a perfect example of a clear-cut decision that could be made with the assistance of video replays, for an off-the-ball incident that the referee himself did not see. And it happened on such a big stage, during such a big event, that it could easily be used as a perfect illustration of the need for video support.

It’s not like Zidane or anyone else in the French camp would use this “illegal” use of a video replay as a reason for questioning the referee’s decision and its impact on the game. With or without video support, it was the right decision, and there can be absolutely no debate about that.

Yet, here again, FIFA appears to have made a concerted effort to avoid the issue altogether. Sadly, with the focus now on what was actually said by Materazzi and on Zidane’s upcoming statement, it will probably soon fall off the media’s radar again. I suspect that, for things to really change in this particular department, we’ll need a new FIFA president first.

One Response to “The Zidane head-butt: An on-going controversy”

  1. Jussi says:

    The thing Zidane did was very unfortunate and hard to understand. On the other side the things Materazzi seems to think are normal to do on the field[1] are also quite far from my view of football.


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