Zidane, butt of European race debate


LONDON: Much of Europe has begun a controversial political debate about football, the sport that knits the continent but divides it from the coloured world, after Zinedine Zidane’s ignominious exit from the World Cup, professional football and the world stage because of a fierce exchange with Italian player Marco Materazzi in the 111th minute of the final match.

On Monday, even as Zidane met French president Jacques Chirac and just hours after the legendary footballer headbutted Materazzi in full view of an estimated two billion people who watched the fracas with shock and awe, some of Europe’s leading black and mixed-race footballers went on record with the damaging speculation that the Italian may have slapped the ethnic Algerian Frenchman with a racist insult uttered in Italian.

By Monday afternoon, the speculation appeared to have hardened into a gimlet-eyed certainty with football pundits reminding the world that Zidane understands the Italian language because of his long years with the Italian club Juventus. Ergo, Materazzi would have known his muttered racial slur on Zidane would hit home, the pundits said.

Meanwhile, Luther Blissett, the black English footballer who briefly played for Serie A team A C Milan after a surprise poaching from the English club Watford in 1983, took to the airwaves with the doleful admission that French and Italian soccer was notoriously racist.

Zidane’s best course, offered Blissett, was to go public with an account of what Materazzi really said on the pitch on Sunday night. He said this was the only way for the world, Europe and European football to understand the sometimes subliminal racial mindset of the beautiful game.

Blissett’s comments have caused a stir, not least because A C Milan has long figured amongst some of the European football clubs most violently affected by racism. The others include Italy’s Lazio, France’s Paris Saint-Germain and Spain’s Real Madrid and Espagnole.

But some critics, who accuse Zidane of ‘thuggery’ on Sunday night and rubbish the racist-remark theory, say Blissett’s Milan experiences may have coloured his view of the French captain’s actions.

Lazio, they pointed out, once recruited a Surinamese national of Indian ethnicity, Aaron Winter, who was repeatedly subject to attacks on the pitch with cries of “niggers and Jews out”.

British commentators said on Monday that Zidane’s unexpected and untimely fit of football pitch petulance may have only served to remind France of “its failure to bring into the mainstream the children of immigrants from its former colonies”.

Though Zidane, affectionately known alternately as Zizou or Yaz (which is short for Yazid, his middle name) has always refused to talk about the politics of race relations, integration and France’s subtle apartheid, his last outburst on the world stage is thought to be directly linked to his origins as a poor, coloured north African Arab boy growing up on one of the toughest housing estates in Marseilles.

Less than a year after France’s worst urban, race-related riots in decades, the footballer’s fans and fiercest critics alike suggested that his background is “the source of an inner rage”, especially as he has acknowledged that his “desire never to stop fighting is something I learnt in the place where I grew up”.

But notably, Zidane’s team-mate Guadeloupe-born Lilian Thuram, has spoken out against the racism that defines European and French football.

In a bitter reference to far-right French politician Jean-Marie le Pen’s attacks on a national team he deems insufficiently French, Thuram said earlier this year, “Long live France not the one he (le Pen) wants but the real one. Le Pen is not aware that there are black, blond and brown French people”.

Rashmee Roshan Lall

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