Zinedine Zidane, race, grace and brutality

It is a testament to Zidane’s career in professional football that his most infamous moment in the game is considered an ‘ode to defeat’ by Abdessemed, who immortalised Zidane’s World Cup final head-butt in his outrageous sculpture, Coup de Tete. The statue itself stands at an imposing 16ft and was displayed in Doha in Qatar, before being removed due to an intense public backlash, most likely because of its violent connotations. However, given Zidane’s role as a race ambassador, his attack on Italian defender Marco Materazzi could mean a whole lot more given the suspected racial slur directed towards Zidane by Materazzi to prompt his violent outburst.


Zidane announced that the 2006 FIFA World Cup would be his final act as a professional player; France would have to win the tournament to ensure Zidane’s denouement[1] did not end in disappointment or defeat. Zidane carried his team all the way to the final, and he was justly awarded player of the tournament for his phenomenal individual contribution. The final itself took place in Berlin between France and Italy. Despite scoring and playing well in the game, Zidane struck an opposing player, with his head! This deservedly earned him a red card; he was thus dismissed from the field of play. His head-butt on fellow goal scorer Materazzi was his final act on a football pitch, an action he delivered with as much grace as some of his most significant goals.

Consequently, Italy won the World Cup. Rather than criticise Zidane, the French press chose to celebrate Zidane’s overall career. Jacques Chirac, the French President at the time, shared the sentiment of the media; “You are a virtuoso, a genius of football and an exceptional human being. That is why France admires you.”

Can you imagine the English press being so kind? “Rooney, you look like Shrek, and you’ve committed GBH in a World Cup Final. That is why England hates you.” – This is the kind of backlash Rooney might be subject to had he committed the same offence.

Zidane is one of the greatest football players of all time, and yet, arguably his most iconic moment in the game was a foul which contradicted the laws of the game. This is why Zidane is the greatest, because not only is he a wonderfully gifted player but he is also the protagonist of one of the most beautiful stories football has to offer. The Frenchman has singlehandedly-propelled football into higher cultural activity. In many years, when the historians of sport retrace the steps of this shift in football, it will be Zidane who will be accredited as the 21st Century football renaissance man.

Allow me to explain myself further. If geniuses were not flawed, they would not be geniuses in the first place. Zidane is regarded as a genius by many of the connoisseurs of football. In the same way that Mozart is considered to be a virtuoso by the influential voices in classical music, and like Mozart, Zidane’s admirers want to uncover the truth regarding his journey to genius.

It is Zidane’s mastery of the game that makes his flaws so intriguing. His flaws leave a vacuum, which allows for cultural and artistic interpretation. Zidane’s story is particularly interesting due to the array of communities and cultures that identify with him. Zidane is arguably the best-known Frenchman in the world; within France, he is the symbol of a multiethnic society, and his footballing talent has afforded him this privilege.

As Ervine wrote in French Cultural Studies, After Zidane’s World Cup triumph in 1998 “the French victory was used very widely as a metaphor for successful French integration.” Zidane himself was an obvious individual example of positive integration because his father was an Algerian immigrant. The Frenchman’s talents in football reverberated across French society; Zidane indeed was a pioneer in the beautiful game. Since the beginning of the game itself, football has been manipulated by politics the world over, and France as a country relied on the achievements of Zidane and his teammates during their glory years.

“This closes a chapter of French history because it shows one can remain faithful to an Algerian nationalist father and yet be for France, that one can be a Muslim and be fully French.”(Hare, London: 135).

The bigger picture, however, involves Zidane to a much lesser extent. Professional players are bought and traded for primarily their footballing prowess and secondarily for their media clout. However Zidane has illustrated the influence a charismatic footballer can have in the real world, he was the foremost player in a global sport, a sport that has a more considerable following than any political party or religion[2].

Nonetheless, Zidane has rarely been drawn on the topic of his descent; he is shy off the field of play.

Braudy defines how icons cannot escape the associations by which they come to be determined by the outside eye:

“To be talked about is to be part of a story, and to be part of a story is to be at the mercy of storytellers – the media and their audience. The famous person is thus not so much a person as a story about a person. (Braudy, 1997: 592).”

Nonetheless, Zidane’s story, exaggerated or not, is the most captivating in football. His journey is fit for a Hollywood masterpiece, and it was all made possible by the fact that he was the most elegant player of his generation. Zidane was a fascinating subject long before the media took interest and unlike most famous footballers you’ll never see him in a celebrity gossip column, Zidane’s contribution to society is much more important than that.

As I type this article, I am abundantly aware of its melodramatic nature, although in football a writer very rarely has a topic so captivating to write about. Zidane was, at times, over-emotional, and he thrived on the big occasions. In a sport that is overladen with mundane media-trained bores, Zidane is the sole torchbearer of theatrical football, and his stage presence is sorely missed in today’s game. From start to finish he was the very best. Don’t scrutinise his stats or statistics; you had to see to believe it. As an audience we were gripped, Zidane’s career narrative was never short of a plot-twist or two, the last of which comes right at the end of his story with the Frenchman’s cathartic head-butt, a poetic finale to football’s most celebrated work of art.

[1] French word meaning the final part of a narrative.

[2] 110% unfounded.

See more at http://www.footballfancast.com/european/la-liga/real-madrid/an-article-paying-tribute-to-a-real-madrid-legend#uY5zDOrKUuiOsq8p.97

Photo credits: Four Four Two

About James Bayley

Email: james.bayley1@outlook.com Twitter hand: @Bayleycakes_

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