Good for you, Zizou.
Don't count me among those who are wagging their finger at French soccer star Zinédine Zidane for his ferocious head butt to the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the waning minutes of overtime of the World Cup final. Zidane, known as Zizou to the fans who worship him, later explained that he erupted after having to endure one insult too many--not to mention a game's worth of off-the-ball rough stuff--from a fullback who has been called l'animale in Italy.
Sadly, most sports fans in America will remember Zidane as that crazy head-butt dude. It's a terrible, although not undeserved, legacy, since he's always been a hothead. And the fact that the incident was debated for days on cable networks was perverse testimony to the Cup's growing viewership in the U.S., now up to National Basketball Association (NBA) play-off levels. But if American fans watched only the final, they got just a glimpse of a mesmerizing athlete who has hands for feet, as one scout described him. Like all great athletes, his field vision is uncanny, and he's always a beat ahead of everyone else. More Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan, Zizou controlled games, feeding impossibly angled passes to appreciative teammates and scoring timely, if not spectacular, goals. Just remember that cheeky, chipped penalty kick that put France up 1-0 in Berlin last week.
But Zizou has also been playing football during a time when dirty play has become acceptable. Defenders such as Materazzi are skillful in their own right, but they have also mastered the black arts that disfigure the game. The Italians are particularly good at it, as the Americans discovered during their 1-1 draw in Kaiserslautern, a game in which Brian McBride's face was slashed open by an Italian elbow.
If you watch the penalty box on any corner kick in a game in Italy's Serie A, or England's Premiership, you see defenders grabbing strikers in full nelsons, yanking their shirts, throwing elbows, pushing, kicking--and that's before the ball is put in play. In response, players such as Portugal's young sensation Cristiano Ronaldo have learned to dive and writhe on the ground the instant an opponent is within spitting range. Throw in trash talk, some of it outright racist in a Europe where African and Brazilian players flourish, and you can see why a player like Zidane might erupt.
But instead of dealing with these problems, as other sports have, FIFA, soccer's governing body, is a world leader in bloviation over action. The NBA outlawed trash talk and instituted a flagrant-foul rule to deal with dirty players. The National Hockey League, hardly a sport for wimps, also cracked down on thugs. The NHL decided to enforce the rules on hooking, holding and interfering when it became apparent that the chippy play was ruining the game by preventing players from using their talents--you can't skate with a stick up your behind. The result: when the refs cracked down, there was a lot of whining about the loss of "old school" hockey, but once everyone got used to the fact that the rules would be enforced, the game improved. Scoring increased because the game's stars, such as the Czech Republic's Jaromir Jagr and Russia's Alexander Ovechkin, were free to fly.