Zinedine Zidane: More than just a headbutt

25 May

Zidane (right) battles with Kaka for the ball in the Quarterfinal match between France and Brasil at the 2006 World Cup

Zidane’s infamous headbutt during the final match of the 2006 World Cup that leveled the Italian Materazzi has no doubt etched itself into football lore. One commentator went so far as to call it the “headbutt heard round the world” in reference to the shot heard round the world which started the American Revolutionary War. Zidane was given a straight red card and sent off and while there was a sense that foul play was somehow involved, the only war that began was a war of words between Materazzi and the press. After the incident everyone wanted to know what Materazzi had said that had provoked Zidane to lose his cool during one of the most important matches of his career. Zidane refused to publicly state what had been said but the press charged that it was something to do with Zidane’s ethnic background and his mother, two things you do not want to insult. Zidane had become a symbol for multi-ethnic France and an incident like this can be interpreted multiple ways. One interpretation is that Zidane was in the right and that his reaction to what Materazzi said showed that he was unwilling to tolerate abuse. In this interpretation he should be remembered as a player who was proud of where he came from and did what he had to do to defend the honor of his family and his community. Another interpretation is that this proved that immigrants, even those as accomplished and well loved as Zidane was, are at the end of the day prideful, emotional, irrational, and most of all violent. Through this post I hope to show that there is more to Zidane than just a shiny bald head that can occasionally be used as a wrecking force.

In order to understand Zidane we must first look at the environment in which he was raised. He grew up in a rough suburb of Marseille called La Castellane which is largely inhabited by immigrant communities from places such as Algeria, Morocco, Caribbean islands, and French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa. La Castellane has a distinct culture that has been formed through the mixture of all of these groups and people there have no problem identifying themselves with Marseille, which has always been the toughest and most deprived of French cities. Zidane has repeated time and again that he is proud of where he came from and that he never forgets the people he grew up with. Zidane’s rags to riches tale, his great escape from La Castellane has made him a target for various groups who wish to use his story for their own political purposes. Racial tensions mounted in France in the late 90s and politicians hoped that Zidane would give young French people of North African origin (known as berbers) a sense of French identity for the first time. However, this was unlikely as Zidane makes it clear in the quote below that he is a Frenchman last.

‘And this desire never to stop fighting is something else I learnt in the place where I grew up. And, for me, the most important thing is that I still know who I am. Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman.’

Those working to relieve the racial tensions in France hoped that he would project a positive image of North Africans to mainstream France for the first time. I think it is safe to say that for the most part Zidane was accepted by the French public and that his appeal transcends the religious and racial divide in one of the tensest multi-ethnic societies in Europe. Most notably, in 2000 he came first in a poll for ‘the most popular Frenchman of all time’. The poll was conducted in the Journal du Dimanche, the bestselling French equivalent of the New York Times. Zidane reflects on the significance of his victory in the quote below.

“This is massive. Before it was hard to talk about certain things, especially if like me you came from a difficult area or from an immigrant background. But now it tells you how France has changed and is changing. It’s a message to everybody – politicians, the kids I grew up with, ordinary French people – about what can be done.”

I would just like to comment that as an American I am used to racial discrimination being largely based on skin color. In my eyes Zidane is white, because his skin color is white, and when I first read about the racial abuse he had faced I was taken aback. I cannot pretend to understand the complexities of racial issues in France and I wonder if the difference between being a white Frenchman and being an Algerian like Zidane is the same as being a white Frenchman and being a black African. The reason I bring this up is because I was going to ask if Zidane could have won “the most popular Frenchman of all time” award if he had been black because Zidane is an African but his skin color is white and I feel that I have grown up in a society that places a great deal of emphasis on skin color. That being said, the influential French social critic Pascal Boniface hailed Zidane’s popularity as no less than the beginning of ‘a new Enlightenment’. Zidane was right to celebrate this victory and surely it showed that things were changing in France, but it’s important to remember that he became a national hero because he possessed a unique gift. He garnered respect simply because he was valuable, an asset to the French national football team. Rachid Zekraoui, an employee at a community centre in La Castellane, pointed out, Zidane’s great talent and success cuts two ways. It shows that the son of a North African immigrant can succeed in France. But it also suggests that, even in the 21st century, a young person is “condemned to excellence” to escape from a place like La Castellane. The admiration that Zidane received from the French public translated into very little real change for the community that he claims to represent. For example, a different survey at the time found that 60 percent of people felt there were too many Arabs in the country. The youth in places like La Castellane understand this dynamic and an interview with one such youth, Majid, 14, reveals that “They tolerate us when we can play football well but, otherwise, there is no room for beurs or for people from places like this.”

Zidane was happy to win his award but remains eager to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible. The public knows very little about his personal life and even less about his political leanings, he fights his battles on the pitch rather than off it. He was heralded as the poster boy of multi-ethnic France after the 1998 World Cup victory but repeatedly remarked “I have no message.” He could have easily become a vocal activist for France’s under-represented communities such as La Castellane, the world was waiting for his comments on the social situation in France but he chose to remain in silence. “There are too many sharks around Zinedine,” explains his brother Nordine. “There are too many people who want to use him for political ends.” I can understand Zidane’s desire to solely focus on his craft, and in all honesty playing beautiful football should be his only responsibility but you can’t help but feel that players of his magnitude are almost expected to speak up. For example, in recent years the Berbers from the Kabylie region of Algeria, which is Zidane’s family’s home territory, have been in open conflict with the Algerian government. There are rumors of massacre and counter-massacre, but all that is really known in the West is that more than 100,000 people have lost their lives in the civil war that has devastated the country since 1992. Despite pressure from lobby groups, Zidane has never commented on the war in public. He has decided to stay out of politics, to keep his head down, and to focus on football which is possibly why he has enjoyed such fame in France. Fans get to enjoy Zizou’s fancy footwork without having to worry about hearing him drone on about issues in the Kabylie region or even in La Castellane, a bit closer to home.

Despite his efforts to stay out of the spotlight, an incident occurred after the 1998 World Cup that forced him to speak up. After the World Cup victory in 1998 Zidane mania reached its height but the celebration was short lived. Within days of the famous victory, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National, was growling in the press about the racial origins of the French team, singling out Zidane for faint praise as ‘a son of French Algeria’. His comment was carefully loaded. The term ‘French Algeria’ is never neutral in the French media: it returns one inevitably to the colonial state that only ended in 1962 after a long and brutal war. Then one of Le Pen’s henchmen declared that if Zidane was acceptable to the French it was only because his father had been a harki. This Arabic word describes the Algerians who fought for the French during the Algerian war and who were massacred or fled to France in its aftermath. The insult was calculated to cause damage and hurt, to smear the reputation of a man who had become a hero for so many, especially in the suburbs such as La Castellane. The extent to which the insults had shaken Zidane’s fan base was revealed during a friendly match between France and Algeria at the Stade de France in October 2001. It was billed as an historic moment of reconciliation between two nations but the Harki incident had turned it into much more. In the lead-up to the match Zidane received death threats. During the game, he was booed and taunted and, he said that he was ‘disconcerted’ by the posters that read ‘Zidane-Harki’. The match was abandoned after a violent pitch invasion by young French Arabs in the second half.

Zidane’s response to this fiasco was finally to break his public silence about his father’s identity. In a press statement he said,

“I say this once for all time: my father is not a harki. My father is an Algerian, proud of who he is and I am proud that my father is Algerian. The only important thing I have to say is that my father never fought against his country.’

Zidane should not have had to defend his family name but the fact that he did reveals the immense pressure on him. There is pressure from the Algerians living in France to be more Algerian and there is pressure from the French who want him to be more French. This could be why he has chosen to opt out of politics and try to avoid the spotlight as much as possible. It’s just too much to worry about on top of everything else. The result is that Zidane has had to walk a thin line. He is a representative for the immigrant community in France but not in a way that ostracizes the French public. He picks his battles and stands up for his family and his community when he feels it is absolutely necessary. After the 1998 World Cup, Zidane published a book, Mes copains d’abord (My Friends First). Zidane was here more explicit than he had ever been before about what the victory had meant for him and his community: ‘It was for all Algerians who are proud of their flag,’ he said, ‘all those who have made sacrifices for their family but who have never abandoned their own culture.’ No one seemed to notice when this quotation was quietly dropped from the second edition of the book. Nor that, in allowing this to happen, Zidane had committed a minor but telling form of self-betrayal.

Zidane lifts the World Cup after their victory in France in 1998







One Response to “Zinedine Zidane: More than just a headbutt”

  1. Anjeanette May 26, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    I was throughly intrigued by this topic since I have been a Zizou fan. Wonderfully written and loaded with insight that makes you ponder!

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