This Zidane, and that

AP

The French maestro has successfully turned natural order on its head during his career as a professional footballer — we have not ceased wondering how a tall man with a high centre of gravity has maintained such perfect balance on the turn with a ball at his feet. But, in Berlin, he gave way to natural human emotions in response to extreme provocations. If only he had turned nature on its head one last time, writes N. U. Abilash.

"My father is an Algerian, proud of who he is. I am proud that I am a Kabyle (the region of Algeria from where Zidane's parents come from) in Marseilles. This does not mean that I am not proud of being French."

-- Zidane

Good heavens, the simple matter of how Zinedine Zidane will be remembered has become so complex and vexatious. The head-butt in Berlin will, unfortunately, be one of the many lingering images of Zidane's career as a professional footballer. But for a football fan drunk on Zidane's celebration of life's possibilities — the breathtaking off-balance left-footed volley into the Bayer Leverkeusen net for Real Madrid in Glasgow's Hampden Park in the Champions League final of 2002; the sidestepping on the run which helped him get past one Brazilian player, then another, and then send a precise, yet unproductive, through ball to Patrick Vieira against Brazil in Frankfurt in the 2006 World Cup; the double step-over in a La Liga game against Valencia a few years earlier and a delectable pass to striker Javier Portillo who scored; the insouciant chipped penalty against Gianluigi Buffon in the first half of the 2006 final — l'affaire Marco Materazzi on the legend's last night out will only be a subliminal experience.

But, perhaps, this one might just inhabit the outer layers of the consciousness unlike Zidane's red card against Saudi Arabia in the World Cup first round of 1998 for stamping on Saudi captain Fuad Amin, or his sending off and five-match ban for Juventus in the Champions League of 2000-01 against Hamburg following a head-butt on Jochen Keintz, both retaliatory actions like the Berlin head-butt. After all, it was the biggest prize in the world of sport, the FIFA World Cup, hanging in the balance when Zidane gave all his fans a rude shock.

Agreed, we knew that our hero had a short fuse when provoked, but we also knew that this was one creative midfielder who never abandoned reason on the field looking for elusive flair — perhaps, if some agency were to collate data of talented footballers in terms of step-overs performed in their careers juxtaposed to the number of times the step-over has been productive in helping them get past opponents, we would not be surprised if Zidane topped the chart. We also knew that he never abandoned reason off the field — Zidane, whose Algerian parents migrated to Marseilles via Paris a few years before Zidane was born — and has always fought against the French political right-wingers who stepped up their hate campaign yet again just after the 2006 World Cup got underway claiming that the nation cannot identify with the squad, which is top heavy with non-whites. "My father is an Algerian, proud of who he is. I am proud that I am a Kabyle (the region of Algeria from where Zidane's parents come from) in Marseilles. This does not mean that I am not proud of being French," he had said in October 2001, addressing the oft-discussed social significance of his origins for the first time.

Then, why did Zinedine Zidane crack in Berlin? (Or did he actually crack considering that there was a lapse of a few seconds between action and reaction?) And, in doing so why did he allow himself so pathetically to play into the Italian hands? After all, he knew he had played a good deal of his football for Juventus under Italian coach Marcello Lippi, who knew all about when and how his short fuse would ignite. Why did Zinedine Zidane allow himself to be a Graeme le Saux, the former English defender of average abilities whom rival players knew how exactly to inflame and get sent off — by throwing his baselessly-rumoured homosexuality at his face in the rudest possible way.

It was no secret in the football fraternity that Zidane's joint family — of which he is, in a very non-European manner, very protective — and his Algerian-Muslim origins have been his Achilles heel. He knew it as well as they did, and should have guarded against a retaliatory outburst in a World Cup final. A retaliatory outburst and a red card offence might have been justifiable in a match of lower stakes — the gentlemanly sporting code, after all, had been smashed to smithereens the moment Materazzi's "seriously" insulting words hit the Berlin air as sound waves. Even more pertinent is that Zidane, on receiving the red-card, had complained about Materazzi's insults to referee Horacio Elizondo, as the Frenchman revealed on television after coming back to Paris to a hero's welcome. Nothing happened to the provocateur. Not even a yellow card offence committed by him, ruled the referee. (Retrospective punitive action might come from FIFA, but will it alter even by a millimetre what happened to France in World Cup 2006?) The moment the red card flashed at Zidane and he walked off, the Italian defender rose dramatically from his horizontal position on the ground and carried on with the game. He scored in the penalty shoot-out as well. So much so for judgments that Zidane should have gone to the referee to get justice for himself and his team the proper way. So much so for theories that Zidane's assault was so brutal that Materazzi would have suffered grievous bodily harm. Italian centre-backs are not known to be rose petals.

In spite of all this, and an immensely sensitive core which foregrounds dignity, personal pride, identity and family over football-as-career, Zidane should not have cracked. We live in times when football, as famously described by former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, is "not just a matter of life and death but something more important". It is not just national pride or the FIFA World Cup at stake, but millions of dollars. To quote Shankly, the master of football one-liners, again, "Winning is not the most important thing; it is the only thing."

Zidane's only flaw as a professional footballer resides just about here; for most part of his professional career, he has transplanted the temperament of a Saturday evening amateur kick-around in the park to gigantic multi-million dollar European football stadia such as the Bernabeu, the Stade Delle Alpi or the Stade de France. It can be shocking how a man who is the most technically perfect footballer in skills and the most tactically astute one in masterminding the pace and movement of a game can relapse suddenly on provocation to an interior landscape that can be as turbulent as, well, the socio-political trajectory of the modern world.

BACKING ZIZOU - Supporters carry a portrait of Zinedine Zidane in Paris. They forgave their national hero, who led France to the final of the 2006 World Cup.-AP

Perhaps, Zidane will sit back a few years from now in his Marseilles or Paris home and reflect that he should have taken a few tips on retaliation from his France team-mate, the flamboyant Arsenal striker Thierry Henry. Spain manager Luis Aragones had racially abused Henry two years ago in his absence during a Spanish training session.

Microphones on the training ground did their duty but the Spanish Football Federation did not and Henry was livid that nothing substantial had happened to Aragones other than losing some small change, which was shamelessly called a `fine'. In Germany, after France surprisingly defeated Spain 3-1 in the second round, Henry had this to say, "I would not like to say anything about the Aragones issue. The win speaks for me." Touche.

Zidane, whom the late British sports writer and commentator Brian Moore described memorably as "built like an ox but with the toes of a ballerina", has successfully turned natural order on its head during his career as a professional footballer — we have not ceased wondering how a tall man with a high centre of gravity (unlike short legends such as Pele, Gerd Mueller and Maradona) has maintained such perfect balance on the turn with a ball at his feet. But, in Berlin, he gave way to natural human emotions in response to extreme provocations. If only he had turned nature on its head one last time.

AP

ZZ'S JOURNEY 1972: Born on June 23, Marseille, France. 1988: Joins first professional club, Cannes. 1992: Signs for Bordeaux.

1994: Makes his debut for France as substitute against Czech Republic. Scores two goals in the first 17 minutes.

1996: Joins Juventus, which goes on to win two Serie `A' titles in his first two seasons.

1998: He is sent off in the second half of France's second 1998 World Cup finals match in Paris, a 4-0 victory over Saudi Arabia on June 1. Banned for two games.

1998: Scores two headed goals to help France win their first World Cup with a 3-0 victory in final against holders Brazil on July 12.

1998: Is named European Player of the Year.

1999: Is named FIFA 1998 World Player of the Year.

2000: Is adjudged player of the tournament after France wins European Championships in June.

2000: Is handed a five-match ban in October by UEFA after second successive sending-off in the Champions League. The second red card was for a head-butt on Deportivo player Jochen Keintz.

2000: Is named FIFA World Player of the Year in December.

2001: Joins Real Madrid in July, becoming the most expensive footballer in history in a GBP 47 million transfer from Juventus.

2002: Scores a spell-binding volley winner that helps beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 in the Champions League final at Hampden Park, Glasgow, in May.

2002: Misses first two matches of the 2002 World Cup finals because of a thigh injury. Plays the final Group A match against Denmark, which France loses 2-0 and crashes out of the tournament.

2003: Wins the Spanish League with Real Madrid.

2003: Is named FIFA World Player of the Year for a third time in December.

2004: Gets a straight red card in February during the Spanish Cup semi-final for a flying elbow landing on the face of Sevilla defender Pablo Alfaro while off the ball.

2004: Announces his retirement from international football in August after France is knocked out of the Euro 2004 by eventual winners Greece.

2005: Announces his decision to come out of international retirement. Helps France qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

2006: In April announces his retirement from football after the 2006 World Cup.

2006: Captains France to the World Cup final in July, scoring goals against Spain and Portugal on the way. Scores a penalty to give France the lead in the final but is sent off for a head-butt on Marco Materazzi.