TCS Daily

High-Struttin', Head-Buttin' France

By Nidra Poller - July 11, 2006 12:00 AM

What do they have in common, the bald noggin of Zizou d'Aguemoune and the white mane of Galouzeau de Villepin? What is the connection between the vainglorious 2003 UN oration of then Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and the inglorious 2006 World Cup headbutt of Zinedine Zidane?

Ever since the pompous non to intervention in Iraq, France has been running on low octane negative energy. Its high-falutin' antiwar stance has since been shown to cover disgraceful participation in the UN oil for food scam. Then a long series of rejection and adolescent foot stamping that peaked with the non to the European constitutional project in May 2005, the non to everything of the punk jihadis who set fire to the 'burbs later that November, the non to CPE job flexibility in the spring of 2006, culminating in the nonsense of Zidane's lowlife headbutt in the closing minutes of the World Cup final match. The hero's toga Villepin earned with his UN speech was ripped away when he became a boldly presidential hopeful prime minister and had the audacity to suggest that easier firing might lead to easier hiring. As if to prove my point his popularity went down a few notches with the World Cup miss. And President Chirac gained five points presumably for giving a hero's welcome to the petulant Zidane, adored as a demigod and now adulated as a clay-footed human hero. Or clay-headed?

What happened? The French team had shuffled unloved into the World Cup. They got bad press and returned the compliment, hiding away from cameras and journalists, and squeaking through the early elimination rounds. It looked like Les Bleus were heading for early retirement from the competition. The Spanish flourished the red cape, giving Zidane a sendoff to the old folks home. Surprise! He went into the ring fuming with youthful energy and got the thumbs up.

France was electrified, energized, rejuvenated, exhilarated, pulsing with virile energy. The country was swept up in an unprecedented ascension of patriotism, enthusiasm, determination. The media only had eyes for soccer and the eyes were shining with pride and joy. What was true on the airwaves was true on the street. Big cities and small towns, died in the wool fans and Jeannie-come-latelies, legal and illegal immigrants, landed aristocrats, postal workers, high-tech executives, and visiting tourists were caught up in the swell. In between games the team worked out and the population's heart beat for their every effort. Les Bleus sailed through the elimination rounds and floated up to the highest spheres. On game nights the entire population cheered for the champions. Windows opened onto summer nights, the city of Paris emitted a united gasp at every stab at the goal, and erupted into shouts of delirious joy when a French foot booted a ball into the cage.

It was a wonder to behold. How many had tried how hard to mobilize French society in recent years? Politicians from Right, Left, and Center had been trying for decades to get the economy out of the doldrums. We are a strong nation, they declared, rich in history, wealthy in talent. A nation of thinkers and builders. A multicultural nation of immigrants, and all the better for it. Society responded with a Gallic shrug and stubborn stagnation.

Big and small businessmen, economists and philosophers had done their best to warm up French blood and get the motor humming. The population was bribed, chided, cajoled, shamed, dismissed, embraced. Nothing worked. They couldn't even get the young generation to drink French wine! And suddenly a short string of World Cup victories sparked all the plugs and sent France into orbit, leaving behind the heavy ideological baggage known affectionately among the locals as the "French economic model," and in the rest of the world as last-ditch socialism. That devilish competition advocated by "Anglo-Saxon free marketeers" was just delicious when practiced on the soccer field. Keep the other guy from getting near your goal, gouge him in the eyes if the referee isn't watching, give him a kick as he falls, steal the ball from him, block him with your outstretched arm, and when you see an opening, go for it, strike, score and when you score cheer for yourself, hug your teammates like long lost lovers, roll on the ground, humping and grinding, sweat, spit, blow your nose onto the grassy field, let it all hang out, and score!

No bleeding hearts for the underdog. Who cares if some players stay on the bench? Nothing succeeds like success: fat-cat sponsors, six-figure salaries, bonuses, glitzy advertising, ditzy girlfriends, tinsely hero worship, free enterprise, greasy-palmed FIFA, no holds barred and no complaints from the French masses. Kids who were carried on papa's shoulders in the spring demonstration were now waving French flags in their strollers. No anti-capitalist posters, only flags and team jerseys. No anti-CPE slogans magic-marked on teenage faces, just the red, white, and blue of our team. Allez Les Bleus, one nation, one team, one goal: victory.

Excitement reached a paroxysm on July 10. Zidane was on the front pages, French lungs were bursting with confidence. The victory celebration had almost begun before kickoff.

But Italy was a tough opponent. The first French goal—Zidane naturellement—was quickly offset by the Italians. And from there on the poor guys slugged it out. However quick and nimble, every world class player met his match. No matter how many times they captured the ball, now Les Bleus, now Squadra Azzura, no matter how deftly they wriggled past one, two, three defenders, no one could ever get it into the cage. Balls soared over the top, bounced off the sidebars, or got sucked into the goalie's cupped hands with a sensual thud.

The official time ended on a 1-1 tie. The extra time was excruciatingly trying for players and fans. It was clear that the World Cup final was going to be decided by a shootout. Almost too painful to anticipate.

Then, suddenly, about fifteen minutes before the end of the additional time, the scene abruptly changed. Another sort of drama played out before scores of millions of eyes. Zidane, the prince with the golden boots, turned into a frog. An ugly petulant frog. With one sharp butt of his head he sent Materazzi to the ground. France's TF1 commentators were stunned. "Oh no, Zidane, not that. Not that Zidane. No. Why, Zidane, why?"

Zizou was red-carded out of the game, out of the World Cup, shamefully out in the closing minutes of the last professional game of his career. Italy went on to win the shootout. Les Bleus came home to a demi-hero's welcome. French press and public with rare exceptions commiserated with the headbutter. The logic was: Materazzi must have said something really, really insulting. The politically conscious are sure the insult was "Islamophobic," the worldly-wise know it had to be a profanity in the milk of his mother.

Which might explain why neither Zidane nor Materazzi wants to repeat the insult in public. Materazzi explains that he had grabbed Zidane's jersey for a few seconds. "He looked me up and down with utter contempt, and said 'if you want my jersey I'll give it to you after the game.' I insulted him. And suddenly he turned around and butted me so hard I fell on my back."

Materazzi replied clearly to pointed questions. Q: Did you insult his sister? A: No. Q: His mother? A: Certainly not. A mother is sacred. Q: Did you say he was a terrorist? I'm not into politics.

How about a third possibility? What the French call "pipi-caca. " He might have said, "I wouldn't use your jersey to wipe my butt."

I could be wrong. But so could those who claim that Zidane wouldn't have reacted violently unless he was outrageously provoked. If they are wrong, will they rethink the whole incident? Don't hold your breath.

The author is a writer living in Paris.


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