Jordan in his last game, with the score tied in overtime, knocking
out his defender with a punch to the throat. Imagine Derek Jeter
in game seven of the World Series, at bat with the bases loaded,
thrashing the opposing team's catcher over the head with his bat.
Our collective shock would only be exceeded by disappointment.
No one, fan or foe, would want to a see a great player end their
career in an act that speaks to the worst impulses of sports:
when hard competition spills over into violence.
if Jordan and Jeter claimed they were provoked with a racial slur.
Does their violence become understandable? Even excusable? Herein
lies the case of French National team captain, the great Zinedine
Zidane. Zidane, competing in his last professional match, was
kicked out of the World Cup final in overtime for flattening Italian
player Marco Materazzi with the head-butt heard around the world.
Zidane, or Zissou as he is known, became the first captain ever
ejected from a World Cup championship match.
denounced Zissou for committing a "classless" act and
the French team withered, eventually losing to a demonstrably
inferior Italian squad in overtime. The following morning the
international tabloids with their typical grace, gave Zissou a
new nickname: "butt-head." Less examined was the fact that
Zissou was literally carrying a lightly regarded French team to
the finals. Less examined was the fact that Zissou had been grabbed,
kicked, and fouled all game by the vaunted Italian defense. Less
examined was the fact that Zissou had almost left minutes earlier
due to injury, his arm wilting off his shoulder like a wet leaf
of spinach. This unholy amount of pressure is the primary reason
the 34-year-old veteran snapped and planted Materazzi into the
Now the great
mystery is what set Zissou off. What could Materazzi have possibly
said to send him over the edge? Answers are beginning to filter
out. According to a FIFA employee transcribing what was said during
the match, Materazzi called Zissou a "big Algerian shit."
A Brazilian television program that claims to have used a lip-reader
said Materazzi called Zissou's sister "a whore." The
highly respected French anti-racist coalition SOS Racisme issued
a press release stating, "According to several very well informed
sources from the world of football, it would seem [Materazzi]
called Zissou a 'dirty terrorist'."
in an answer that can only be called Clintonian, said, "It is
absolutely not true. I didn't call him a terrorist." Of course
he didn't comment on what he did call him. Zissou himself has
only said cryptically that he would reveal what Materazzi said
"in the coming days."
we do not know beyond a shadow of a doubt what was said but all
the circumstantial evidence points at least toward a variant of
SOS Racisme's claim. Zissou is the son of Algerian immigrants
who has sparred verbally with Europe's far-right political machine
for more than a decade. He is an outspoken anti-racist on a team
that has defined itself by its multiculturalism and stubborn insistence
to stand up against bigotry both inside and outside the sport.
Materazzi on the other hand, will be playing this year for the
Italian team Lazio, where his father was the former coach. Lazio's
fan club, The Ultras, are notorious for their Fascist-friendly
politics. Lazio's hardcore Ultras, known as the "Irriducibili,"
have members in Italy's extra-parliamentary far right and try
to use the club to recruit. The group has frequently used racist
and anti-Semitic banners, one time hanging a 50-foot banner that
said their opponents were a "team of niggers."
to taint Materazzi for the actions of Lazio's fans, but there
is more. Earlier this season in a match that pitted Messina against
Inter in Sicily, Messina's star African player Marc Zoro famously
picked up the ball and walked off the pitch in protest of the
monkey chants rained upon him by Inter supporters. In a stirring
act of solidarity, many of the Inter players immediately showed
support for Zoro's actions. But one opponent yelled, "Stop that,
Zoro, you're just trying to make a name for yourself." That opponent's
name was Marco Materazzi.
At the start
of this tournament I wrote a soccer column with my colleague John
Cox, called Racism Stalks the Cup.
We expressed our concern that the monkey chants, banana peels,
and peanuts raining down on African players this year would continue
on the sport's grandest stage. This largely did not occur. But
then in the final act, at the moment of most exquisite tension,
it seems racism may have actually emerged from the shadows. I,
for one, am damn glad that when it did, it ran smack into Zissou's
know with iron certainty what Materazzi said, but
if it turns out to be more of the anti-Black, anti-Muslim, garbage
that has infected soccer like a virus, the Italian team should
forfeit the cup. They should voluntarily give the greatest trophy
of them all back to FIFA as a statement that some things in this
world are more important than sports. Racism will be the death
of soccer if things don't change. Italy can set the sport back
on course, with one simple, stunning gesture. Give the damn thing
Zirin's new book, "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance
in the United States," is now in stores. You can receive his column,
Edge of Sports, every week by emailing edgeofsports-
firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com
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