Zinedine Zidane must be thanking the gods for FIFA, which in a welcome move Thursday did much to restore some of the lost glow to his image — and some sanity to a debate in which sanctimonious nonsense had been gaining the upper hand.
Not so long ago, Mr. Zidane was France’s shining “blue angel.” But after the veteran midfielder saw red at the World Cup final in Berlin on July 9 and was ejected from the game for head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi, his reputation took a nose dive. As the French put it, L’ange bleu s’est transforme en demon (The blue angel has transformed himself into a demon).
The witticism got it wrong, however. Mr. Zidane did not demonize himself. He was demonized. And he was hardly alone in that. Reaction to the incident that ended up defining the 2006 World Cup is merely the sports version of a mind-set that also defines much of contemporary politics.
However harsh many of the French may have been harsh toward Mr. Zidane, his foreign critics were harsher, unfettered as they were by regret over the outcome of the game, which France ultimately lost to Italy in a penalty shootout.
Pious commentators around the world tut-tutted nonstop about the French team captain’s flareup in Berlin while inexplicably ignoring or downplaying the provocation that caused it. Fingers were vigorously wagged. Children were warned, not against trash-talking or other affronts on the sporting field but against responding to them.
Mr. Zidane of course had his defenders, most notably French President Jacques Chirac, who said last week that while the head butt was an “unacceptable” gesture, “what is certain is that, for a man like Zidane — a man balanced in all respects — to have this type of reaction, there had to be something” that triggered it.
Vladimir Romanov, the major shareholder of Edinburgh’s Heart of Midlothian football club, concurred in a scathing commentary in the Scotsman newspaper: “My view is that those who provoke such situations should be punished, although it should be left to the referee to mete out the justice and not the player.”
And now football’s governing body has put its stamp on that just assessment. In a ruling handed down in Zurich on Thursday, it fined and banned both Mr. Zinedine and Mr. Materazzi — the provoker and the provoked.
The Solomonic fairness of the decision is particularly welcome because it highlights what was missing from so much of the commentary on the issue in the past two weeks: a recognition of the order in which things occurred and the order in which remedies and remonstrations should be offered.
Mr. Zidane’s critics resembled, in this, those who have so noisily censured Israel for its “disproportionate response” in the current Middle East crisis. Never mind what Mr. Materazzi said or what Hezbollah’s militants did; head-butting and all-out military offensives are apparently so heinous that they effectively remove from consideration whatever it was that provoked them in the first place. The reaction becomes the offense.
It is not always an easy thing to get the emphasis right, whether the field is politics or sports. Mr. Chirac got it right with respect to Mr. Zidane but has fluffed it with respect to Israel. U.S. President George W. Bush had nothing to say about Mr. Zidane but did get it right about Israel, albeit in a private conversation, inadvertently recorded at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg last week, that otherwise brought him nothing but the usual ridicule.
Chatting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Bush expressed irritation with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for seeking a two-front ceasefire by Israel without first pushing for fundamental concessions by those Mr. Bush considers responsible for the current conflagration. “That seems odd,” Mr. Bush said. “I don’t like the sequence of it. His attitude is basically ceasefire and [only then] everything else happens.”
In exactly the same way, there was something odd about the outrage swirling around Mr. Zidane since July 9. With startlingly few exceptions, people were not asking the obvious questions: What about the other guy? Shouldn’t he be held accountable? Now FIFA, to its credit, has set them straight with a ringing affirmative.
As its ruling recognizes, acting on those questions is not the same as saying that head butting (or its military equivalent, an all-out aerial bombardment) is right. Clearly, too, such actions tend to bring more grief than they are worth. But in also penalizing Mr. “Everybody does it” Materazzi, it has forced the football world to confront its real problem: a culture of insult and provocation that has spun out of control. Now if only there were a way to deal as forcefully with Hezbollah.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.