Head butt for morality

28th July 2006 at 01:00
Zidane's World Cup antics have exposed the fallacy that fair play by footballers can 'educate the kids', says Stuart Waiton

he Zinedine Zidane moment in the World Cup illustrated the stupidity of those who want to turn football into a morality play and use it as a way to "educate the kids". I hope my son learns something about playing football by watching the genius of Zidane and others. But when it comes to public life, I also hope he will have higher aspirations than to think 22 men playing a game - however beautiful that game may be - are going to teach him anything of note.

I trust, for example, that his understanding of anti-racism goes a little further than Fifa's patronising "be nice to black people" script read out by the various team captains before the games kicked off.

With Fifa's obsession with fair play and indeed with the significance that politicians have given to football issues in the past few years, the initial reaction to Zidane's chest butt was predictable. Zidane, acting not simply as a great footballer but as a "role model", had let not just his team down, but millions of children watching across the world. If only he'd played a "fair game", the world would be a better place.

However, if this overreaction was bad enough, the subsequent defence of Zidane was even worse. Helped by his impoverished, immigrant background and his cult status in France, very quickly Zidane emerged as a new icon, carrying with him the status of the "victim".

The defence of Zidane and the subsequent condemnation of Marco Materazzi was telling and hugely ironic, for it was the logic of "zero tolerance", an outlook that appears to be entirely against violence but which ultimately excused, and indeed even justified, one of the more overtly violent acts that I have seen on a football pitch for a long time.

The problem with this zero tolerance approach is that it is predicated on a belief that people are fundamentally vulnerable. Once this understanding is accepted, then calling someone a nasty name simply becomes another form of violence and abuse, and the old adage of "sticks and stones may break my bones" becomes obsolete. Suddenly Materazzi becomes the villain and the "abused" Zidane is entirely justified in butting another player.

Zidane has had players kicking him and noising him up for a decade, and perhaps he decided that, this being his last match, he would have the final word. But his reaction was ultimately unprofessional and cowardly, an adolescent outburst that he should be ashamed of. Not for "the kids", but for his team mates and the French fans.

When Zidane butted Materazzi, I must confess I laughed out loud, partly because I could envisage the Fifa fair play suits weeping into their chilled Chardonnay, but partly because I was to gain pound;100 if Italy won the game.

However, I laughed even harder when I read about the Somerset pensioners who chased a group of drunken young footballers away from the concert they were enjoying in a park.

This group of lads, having watched the World Cup, decided to play football next to the brass band and started kicking the ball at the conductor.

Perhaps the old folks could have "done the right thing", which today would mean phoning the police or moaning to some official after the event. But these pensioners thankfully haven't been schooled in bullying awareness protocol and decided to stand up for themselves.

The band stopped playing, but then launched into a rendition of "The Great Escape", at which stage a number of the old men looked at one another, kissed their wives and marched in unison, with sticks and Zimmer frames, towards their foe.

"We might be old," one of the pensioners remarked, "but these youngsters didn't stand a chance in hell."

Great stuff.

There is a time and place to stand up for yourself and this was a good one, whereas Zidane's was not. But let's not blow a game of football out of proportion. If we want role models for young people, they must surely come from adults acting in the real world - not men on the television playing a game.

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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