How could he do it? How could Zinédine Zidane, captain of the French football team, regarded as the best player of his generation and in the final match of an illustrious career, head-butt an opponent and hand victory to an Italian side playing for penalties? “A moment of madness,” ventured Alan Shearer. “Materazzi must have said something, but whatever it was, there’s no excuse for what Zidane did,” opined another. His career, they said, had ended in inglorious failure.
But what Marco Materazzi said clearly did matter to Zidane. The speculation yesterday was that he may have insulted Zidane’s family or made some kind of racist slur. If the latter, it would hardly be a shock. Racism in football has a long history and, despite campaigns such as Kick it Out, remains ingrained in the beautiful game. Think of the monkey chants directed at England’s Black players in Spain, after the description of Thierry Henry by Spain’s coach, Luis Aragonés, as a “Black shit”; Paolo Di Canio’s fascist salute in Italy; or, in Britain, Ron Atkinson’s vicious racist jibe at Marcel Desailly.
The question is not what made Zidane throw away the final chapter of his career, but why he has become such an iconic figure around the world, in particular in his country of birth. The politics of race and football in France are particularly revealing of French society. The predominantly African make-up of the French team and its unimpressive early World Cup performances had the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, fuming at the French coach, Raymond Domenech, for having “exaggerated the proportion of players of colour” in the team. Le Pen claimed that they did not show enough passion when singing La Marseillaise. To the great disgust of Le Pen, France’s only emerging White star of the World Cup, midfielder Franck Ribéry, is a convert to Islam.
Despite Le Pen’s xenophobic outpourings, the great majority of the French population were behind the team. The victory against Brazil saw people celebrating across the country, including the Black youth from the banlieues. After the semi-final, more than half a million people gathered in the Champs-Elysées, waving French tricolours alongside Algerian and other African flags. It was a reminder of how France greeted its 1998 World Cup victory, with commentators, politicians and intelle-ctuals suddenly celebrating ‘multicultural’ France.
However, the millions who have supported this predominantly Black team and consider Zidane a hero will have no problem voting for Nicolas Sarkozy, the rightwing politician who called the youth of the suburbs “scum” last November, or even for Le Pen. The players epitomise the ‘good Africans’ who have integrated and rarely speak about politics. Instead of setting cars on fire or feeding jobcentre queues, they have chosen the right path.
In 1998, an anti-racist organisation close to the Socialist party launched a patronising campaign on the theme “Tonight, all French people have dreamt about kissing a Beur” (Beur is slang for Arab) — implying that Zidane was not a French citizen. It is easy to understand why he commands such respect among Black and North African people in France. He is the working-class son of migrants who came from Algeria in the Sixties. He grew up in an impoverished suburb, and finds difficulty expressing himself in the glare of the media spotlight.
For the past three weeks, the ‘scum’ from the banlieues have been celebrating the genius of one of their own. As Bouziane, a social worker from Toulouse, told me: “In defeat or victory, the attitude of France to us remains the same — but Zizou, more than ever, remains one of us.”
(The writer is a French journalist and researcher for the Transnational Institute)