A brief interruption from my football-free week at an undisclosed location on the Northwest Coast (“GRAVEYARD OF THE PACIFIC”) to consider the ever-unfolding Affaire Zizou. It seems that early speculation that Materazzi provoked The Head-Butt Heard Around the World with some sort of anti-Arab slur or heavily researched reference to Algerian political history has died away. (Which, by the way: what’s the most obscure historical insult that could actually draw a red-card offense? “Your grandfather was a Trotskyite deviationist!”?)
Instead, Zizou claims Materazzi insulted his sister and his sick mother. Young Marco—whose response to this situation, whether intentionally or not, has been unrelentingly hilarious—says nothing of the kind occurred, and that in any case he wishes Zidane’s mother well. (He lost his own mother at 15, see, and he still gets emotional about it…)
Now FIFA’s Inspector Clouseau Directorate has asked Zidane to provide a written statement detailing just what the wily Sicilian envisioned his sister, mother, cousins and entire gene pool doing, and with whom. There will then be a “full investigation,” a phrase that should leave the world white with fear when used by any FIFAcrat.
My prediction: Zidane gets at least a six-match ban (what does it matter, since he’s retired? Zurich will throw the book at him); Materazzi will get stuck with a two- or three-match exile for, apparently, his superior mastery of psychological warfare. Extremely portentous words about sportsmanship, human rights, respect for the game, the Dignity of Man and possibly the Geneva Convention will be mouthed by all and sundry.
And henceforth, every single match of international consequence will generate a ream of post-match reports, counter-reports and depositions. Claims of racism, political insensitivity and hurt feelings will become the legalistic equivalent of a theatrical dive in the penalty area. Every single physical outrage will be attributed to some kind of unforgiveable verbal provocation. Believe me—I’ve been hanging out all week with my nephews, ages 7 and 12, and I know how it works.
Even when racial slurs were still on the table, the whole thing reminded me of that ‘Simpsons’ episode when someone starts screaming “HATE CRIME! HATE CRIME!” for some reason. Soccer’s war on racism is starting to resemble America’s War on Drugs—a fruitless effort that manages to give the perpetrators a disproportionate influence on policy and everyone else an excuse for extremely childish conduct. Instead of laughing at, mocking or even pitying the troglodyte idiots who indulge in monkey chants and the rest of the vomitous repertoire, football officialdom either goes into Keystone Kops mode—smacking clubs and national teams with insanely out-of-scale penalties—or turns on its Full Schoolmarm. Anyone think the PC pledge read aloud by Beckham and Figo before the Portugal/England match did a thing besides make both men feel foolish?
The problem with regulating speech—and even a monkey chant counts as speech, unfortunately—is that you need to regulate all of it, or none. Why is it not okay for Spanish fans to sling racial insults, but okay for Mexican fans to chant “OSAMA! OSAMA!” when the USA takes the field, thus glorifying political mass murder? Why “investigate” one incident and not the other? It quickly becomes an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-Sepp-Blatter question of who had their feelings hurt in what way, and how.
There are already laws on the books dealing with what is quaintly called “unsporting behavior,” and they should be enforced to the extent of referees’ ability. But will there ever be a meaningful match played where nary a discouraging word is said? In the case of the Zizou/Materazzi confrontation, there is clear violent conduct on the part of one malfactor and, maybe, a mother insult on the part of the other.
I’d say the referee already dealt with this perfectly (for a change!), and that the world should move on.