Imagine Michael 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.
Now imagine 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. The announcers 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 pitch.
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's 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'."
Materazzi, 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."
Right now, 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 uses racist and anti-Semitic banners, one time hanging a 50-foot banner that said their opponents were a "team of niggers."
It's wrong 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 beautiful head.
We don't 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 back.
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to email@example.com.
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