A blow against provocation

Zidane will have his punishment, but men like Materazzi must face censure, too. Officials must not dither but demand a higher standard; referees must be strict with abuse and players must break the code of silence and declare that certain behaviours are unacceptable in their game, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Maybe it needed a great player to head-butt someone in an important final for us to figure that it's all gone too far. That provocation in sport is without boundaries and the inflammatory has become the norm. Zidane made an appalling mistake, he also drew a line in the sand. Enough is enough. It is why he apologised to his young audience, yet did not wear regret. To do so, he said, would be to admit that Marco Materazzi had reason to say what he did. The head-butt was unusual; offensive words on sporting fields no longer are. Football, like most sport, might as well make no pretence any more about the fact that manners mean little. Much of the repartee during competition is generously interpreted as heat-of-the-moment stuff, or an examination of an opponent's mental toughness. Much of it is just poor taste.

So much is crude and sly. Racist and sexist comments are guilelessly disguised as gamesmanship. Opponents are teased and taunted with words calculated to offend, and then their heated reactions are gleefully pointed out to referees. Buffon ran all the way to incite a referee. It is all quite unedifying. If Zidane's act was astonishing, akin to a four-letter word uttered in church, then what was fascinating was the dance of justification that followed. Most everyone said no words could excuse Zidane's actions, yet still we waited to weigh the severity of provocation. One rumour was the use of the word "terrorist", a terrible obscenity, but Materazzi, confirming that he is visiting from Pluto, claimed he did not even know what a terrorist was. Another rumour suggested the slur was racist. Italian crowds have disgraced the sport for years with their racist chanting, and after the cup the leader of an Italian right-wing party Roberto Caleroli said "France's team is composed of blacks, Islamists and communists". Still, to indict Materazzi by virtue of nationality on that basis is stereotyping on a grand scale.

The prevailing attitude seemed to be that those two reasons (terrorism/racism) gave Zidane some argument, a case of sorts, and what we might infer from that is that nothing else could even partially justify his action. In fact, before Zidane gave his interview, it was rumoured his family, specifically his mother and sister, had been insulted, but no one seemed too upset about this, it was rude, crude, but almost commonplace, and certainly not deserving of a head-butt.

Which is, if you think about it, absolutely absurd: is this acceptable repartee in sport now? How did we ever get so far?

Materazzi told an Italian newspaper: "I used an insult that I've heard used a dozen times and which is heard all the time on the pitch." He said it wasn't to slight Zidane's mother, Zidane said it was. Either way families are considered fair game. One of cricket's famous, but unsubstantiated, stories is of Chris Cairns, whose sister had been killed in a train accident, allegedly being greeted by an Australian slip cordon with a chant of "choo, choo".

Clever needle is one thing, but athletes have never known where to draw lines, and insults have got deeply personal, and even in cricket (a non-contact sport), a punch-up seems almost inevitable. One comment by an English player some years ago to Arjuna Ranatunga broke every boundary of good taste. Teams are also ignorant, wilfully it seems sometimes, of cultural difference, for what is acceptable in some societies is unthinkable in others. Zidane's reaction to his mother and sister being taunted suggests that. Indians in cricket for long were discomforted by a tradition favoured by Australians, for it is not our custom to slight other men on the field and then drink with them later.

Materazzi's alleged insult also highlights an astonishing misogynistic element to abuse on the field, a crude sexism and demeaning of women that has become too familiar among athletes. It is unfortunate that when Darren Lehmann called the Sri Lankan players "black $#&{circ}", he was pilloried specifically for using the first word, when the second is not even printable in a family magazine such as this.

Zidane will have his punishment, but men like Materazzi must face censure, too. Officials must not dither but demand a higher standard; referees must be strict with abuse, not pass it off as macho posturing; and players must break the code of silence and declare that certain behaviours are unacceptable in their game.

After all, mikes on the field and cameras in the dressing room are usually the result of players failing to police themselves. The tragedy is we have told our kids the head-butt was wrong, and it was, but what do we tell them about words so sly we never even hear them? That it didn't happen? That it's no big deal? That everyone insults on a field? That what McGrath said to Sarwan is defensible?

It is hard to defend Zidane's actions, but maybe it's time someone struck a blow against provocation.