July 12, 2006

Red, Z, Go – Tragic end to a great career

H Natarajan

It’s sad, very sad, to see a player as great as Zinedine Zidane end his career in shame. Zidane did not deserve to go into the tunnel a forlorn figure, head bowed; he deserved a hero’s farewell on the biggest stage of the game with millions more watching the live telecast around the world applauding the master from their homes.

But Zidane had only himself to blame. In a fleeting moment of insanity, he gave uncontrolled expression to his rage that destroyed what was a perfect setting for the pinnacle of his career and the glory of his nation. It’s a moment that leaves him scarred for the rest of his life.

Not since Mike Tyson’s savage and cannibalistic moment of madness when he bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s earlobe, has a player rage got such global attention.

Tyson’s rage was an extreme example unprovoked barbarism; in Zidane’s case, the provocation was evident, even if the exact nature of the provocation is still a matter of conjecture.

Marco Materazzi had his hands locked around Zidane’s chest and held his jersey. This led to an exchange of words, though – apparently - nothing to upset either player. Zidane had, in fact, ambled past Materazzi when he stopped in his strides, turned around and without giving any indication of what was coming, head-butted the Italian. Obviously, Materazzi said something later that made Zidane’s blood boil.

Media houses in different countries sought the help of lip readers to unravel the mysterious provocation. The result: as many interpretations as there were lip readers. Some said the insult was aimed at his family, others said it was directed at his Algerian roots, while yet others said it was political. But just about everybody agreed that it was laced with abusive vitriol and designed to get an extreme reaction and a possible red card. The intent behind the barbs is significant and cannot be ignored.

Even if Zidane’s reaction is unjustified and unpardonable, the fact is that Materazzi, as the instigator, must not be allowed to escape the rap. FIFA’s decision to launch an enquiry has come not a minute too late. It has to slap Materazzi with an exemplary punishment so that its serves as a deterrent in the future for others.

Sport at the highest level is replete with ugly clashes, especially ice-hockey. Even in a non-contact and slow-paced sport like cricket, things have got messy. In the 1989-90 Duleep Trophy semi-final, Rashid Patel with the stumps and Raman Lamba with his bat clashed on the field. That led to both player suspended for several months. And last year, in almost an action replay of the above incident, Arjun Yadav pulled out the stumps to attack Ambati Rayudu in a Ranji Trophy match.

If those clashes were between rival players, then there were ugly clashes between players and spectators – the cases of Erica Cantona and Inzamam-ul Haq readily come to mind. Cantona leapt over an advertising billboard to kick an abusive Crystal Palace fan in January 1995, and in the 1997 Sahara Cup in Canada, Inzamam-ul Haq was charged by the police on three separate counts of assault against a spectator who was teasing him about his girth. Inzi went into the crowd with a bat after he found taunts too much for his liking.

But the biggest cause for clash among rival players is the intemperate use of foul and insulting language. Richie Richardson had to restrain the giant Curtly Ambrose from knocking out Steve Waugh in the 1995 Trinidad Test and in another Australia-West Indies Test foul-up, at Antigua in 2003, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Glenn McGrath exchanged personal remarks in the extreme that could well have led to a realistic WWF-like scene on the field.

Here is how the well-documented script of that sledging went:

McGrath to Sarwan: "What does Brian Lara's *** taste like?"

Sarwan: "I don't know, ask your wife."

McGrath (heading menacingly towards Sarwan): "If you ever f***- mention my wife again, I'll f*** rip your f*** throat out."

The Aussies are masters at sledging and McGrath himself is no angel as can be seen from the above conversation. But both McGrath and Sarwan were guilty of getting obnoxiously personal. And it hurt McGrath most because his wife was undergoing treatment for cancer.

It’s time authorities clamp down heavily on players resorting to foul language to upset rivals. Of course, it’s not easy to catch the culprits. Even in a game like cricket, where there are stump microphones, it’s difficult to catch needling culprits in the close-in cordon. That because, as Wasim Akram once told me, players know how to avoid censure by saying what they have to between overs when the television is showing commercials!

When Sachin Tendulkar was accused of ball tampering, the nation was aghast. That’s because Tendulkar - and Rahul Dravid, for that matter – has conducted himself with utmost dignity, not allowing anything to imbue his cricketing whites or his character.

Unfortunately, Zidane’s past is not so blemishless. In 1998, he stamped on Saudi Arabian captain Faud Amin to be red-carded and, subsequently, suspended for two matches. And in October 2000, in his farewell season with Juventus, he was slapped a five-match ban by UEFA for head-butting Jochen Kientz during a Champions League game with Hamburg. In February 2004, Zidane slapped Sevilla defender Pablo Alfaro smack on the face and was duly sent off. Even in the 2006 World Cup, he got yellow cards in France first two games and was forced to sit out the game against Togo.

Zidane had the satisfaction of winning the Golden Ball award for the World Cup’s best player, polling 2012 points in the vote by journalists covering the tournament. He got just 35 votes more than the runner-up, Italian duo Fabio Cannavaro, to win the award. Interestingly, most of the votes were polled before half-time – prior to the sensational send-off. It’s quite possible the polling could have gone differently had the scribes voted after the head-butting incident.

The award apart, Zidane also received copious praise from French President Jacques Chirac. Zidane had not only come out of retirement to answer the call of a nation but guided France with his famed brilliance. In the process, he masterminded the exit of Spain, Brazil and Portugal. He then put France in the lead in the final and almost got what would have been a stupendous match-winner, which was thwarted by an equally brilliant save by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

How will the world remember the midfield maestro, who joined Real Madrid from Juventus in 2001 for a world record fee of for a world-record fee of £46.5m? The head-butting incident is something that will be talked forever like Diego Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal. It would have reinforced the view that he is a flawed genius. But like Maradona, Zidane will be most remembered for his divine skills.

Zidane, who has scored 31 goals from 108 matches, has climbed just about every peak in football. He masterminded France’s World Cup triumph in 1998 and came tantalizingly close to doing it again in 2006. He helped France win the Euro 2000. He was voted “FIFA World Player of the Year” three times - in 1998, 2000, and 2003 and European Player of the Year in 1998. In fact, he was voted the best European player of the last 50 years by UEFA in 2004. He was also named UEFA Champions League Most Valuable Player in 2001-02. He has become a legend in his lifetime and will go down in the history as one of the greatest ever – counted among the magical masters like Pele, Maradona and Franz Beckenbauer.