It was one of the most loathsome, vulgar breaches of the code of sportsmanship I have ever seen.
Yes, I speak of a head-butt during this year’s FIFA World Cup. In an act of blatant, vile cowardice, a former FIFA World Player of the Year, a meticulously tuned athlete whose head had charged and barged him to glory his entire career, chose to use that same head to attack an opposing player. It was a disgusting display of the worst that sports could ever offer. That player should not only have been red-carded but also fined, suspended and publicly derided for his morally and professionally deficient act.
Alas, none of that happened, for I speak not of France’s Zinedine Zidane, but of Luis Figo, Portugal’s star midfielder and his head-butt directed at an opponent in a game against the Netherlands in the round of 16 in this year’s World Cup.
Now, not for a moment will I argue that Zidane’s action was appropriate; it was not, and he was justly punished. But Figo’s offense was at least as reprehensible; it was far more vicious, accompanied by hostile remarks and directed at the head of the opposing player, rather than the chest (though not embellished by a dive, as was Zidane’s). But the referee did not see it, thus there was no foul, no card, and Figo’s head-butt is already long forgotten.
But Zidane’s has become the stuff of myth, never to be forgotten and always to tarnish the legend of the greatest citizen the soccer world has ever seen. In a study of this situation lies a sad understanding of the judgments of justice we the people have learned to so seamlessly make. Why is Zidane’s act considered unforgivable while Figo’s is immediately pardoned? Because Zidane was caught.
We all saw them both, why not make the judgment on our own? One (Zidane) was provoked by insults (possibly in the racial realm) and the other (Figo) was the aggressor, who both initiated and exaggerated the encounter before delivering his blow. And even so, we refuse to deliver the gifts of salvation and the glares of condemnation based on what we saw. We are all too eager to decry and condemn based solely on what the referee declared.
And what is lost? At a minimum, we unjustly condemn one of the greatest heroes of our era. Born in Marseilles, France to a poor immigrant family from Algeria, Zidane grew up in a rough housing project and transcended racial, social and religious barriers to become a resilient icon in his ethnically suppressive nation. He has always been an upstanding citizen, a quiet family man who never exploited the vast stores of fame and riches his immense success afforded.
For all the lack of class he showed in committing his head-butt, Zidane did not make any insults, readily accepted his punishment and has since apologized. All men make mistakes, but it takes morality worthy of a legend to handle the consequences as sincerely as Zidane has. None of that matters to us, though. We see not the man, simply his action. And not the complete action either, just the part continuously replayed on ESPN.
The reaction to Zidane’s offense, in America especially, proves once more that we have now become a people that believe what they are told, rather than what we see with our own eyes. We have no one but ourselves and our ignorance to blame for the national problems we so readily condemn politicians for; we continue to re-elect them, after all.
The stewards of democracy remain forever vigilant, forever suspecting, forever questioning. In our jam-packed, 24/7 schedules, too busy to scrutinize, too trusting to investigate, we are such stewards no more.
Of such apathy, the great Zidane is but one of many victims.
Syed is the current editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.