Zinedine Zidane, race, grace and brutality

Every month Attaboy pays tribute to an athlete who transcended their sport. To mark his 47th birthday, we looked back on the legacy of Zinedine Zidane, a French footballer who united a divided nation with his sublime footballing talent in 1998.

It is a testament to Zidane’s career in professional football that his most infamous moment in the game is considered an, “ode to defeat” by Abel Abdessemed, who immortalised Zidane’s 2006 World Cup final head-butt in his controversial statue, Coup de Tete.

The statue itself stands at an imposing 16ft and was displayed in Doha in Qatar, before it was removed due to its glorification of violence.

Zidane announced that the 2006 FIFA World Cup would be his final act as a professional player; France would have to win the tournament to ensure Zidane’s denouement did not end in disappointment or defeat. Zidane carried his team all the way to the final, and he was justly awarded player of the tournament for his individual contribution.

The final itself took place in Berlin between France and Italy. Zidane’s head-butt on fellow goal scorer Materazzi was his final act on a football pitch, an action he delivered with as much grace and panache as some of his finest goals.

“The French victory was used very widely as a metaphor for successful French integration.”

Jonathan Ervine

Consequently, France lost the World Cup. Rather than criticise Zidane, the French press chose to celebrate Zidane’s overall career. Jacques Chirac, the French President at the time, shared the sentiment of the media; “You are a virtuoso, a genius of football and an exceptional human being. That is why France admires you.”

If geniuses were not flawed, they would not be geniuses in the first place. Zidane is regarded as a singular talent by many of the connoisseurs of football. In the same way Mozart is considered to be a virtuoso by the influential voices in classical music, and like Mozart, Zidane’s admirers want to uncover the truth regarding his journey to genius.

It is Zidane’s mastery of the game that makes his flaws so intriguing. His weaknesses leave a vacuum, which allows for cultural and artistic interpretation. Zidane’s story is particularly interesting due to the array of communities and cultures that identify with him. Zidane is arguably the best-known Frenchman in the world; within France, he is the symbol of a multiethnic society, and his footballing talent has afforded him this privilege.

As researcher Jonathan Ervine writes after Zidane’s World Cup triumph in 1998, “the French victory was used very widely as a metaphor for successful French integration.” Zidane himself was an obvious individual example of positive integration because his father was an Algerian immigrant.

Since the beginning of the game itself, football has been manipulated by politics the world over, and France as a country relied on the achievements of Zidane and his teammates during their glory years.

Ervine adds, “This closes a chapter of French history because it shows one can remain faithful to an Algerian nationalist father and yet be for France, that one can be a Muslim and be fully French.”

The bigger picture, however, involves Zidane to a much lesser extent. Professional players are bought and traded for primarily their footballing prowess and secondarily for their media clout. However, Zidane has illustrated the influence a charismatic footballer can have in the real world, he was the foremost player in a global sport, a sport that has a larger following than any country or religion.

“To be talked about is to be part of a story, and to be part of a story is to be at the mercy of storytellers – the media and their audience. The famous person is thus not so much a person as a story about a person.”

– Leo Braudy

Zidane was, at times, over-emotional, and he thrived on the big occasions. In a sport that is overladen with mundane media-trained bores, Zidane is the sole torchbearer of theatrical football, and his stage presence is sorely missed in today’s game.

As an audience we were gripped, Zidane’s career was never short of a plot-twist or two, the last of which came right at the end of his story with the Frenchman’s cathartic head-butt, a poetic finale to football’s greatest work of art.

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