Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

RIGHTS-FRANCE: Assault Makes Zidane an Immigrant Hero

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Jul 17 2006 (IPS) - French football star Zinedine Zidane could have become a bigger hero among immigrant groups after he brought down Italian player Marco Materazzi with a head butt during the World Cup final in Berlin Jul. 9.

That is despite the possibility that Zidane’s action, for which he was asked to leave the field, might have cost France the World Cup.

Zidane, who became an immigrant hero for leading France to World Cup victory in 1998, is now hero – particularly among people of immigrant origin – for having perhaps lost the World Cup for France..

“Zizou is my hero,” says 18-year-old Jimmy from Saint Denis, a suburb of mostly immigrant families north of Paris. “To punish the mediocre’s offences has always been the task of honourable men.” (Zizou is the affectionate nickname French media and the public have given Zidane).

Fred, another boy from the same area said, “Zizou’s header puts him ahead of other football stars.”

Both boys, of Arab origin, insisted that insults must be punished with violence. “It is a question of honour,” Jimmy said. “The more so if the Italian guy insulted him with racist remarks.”

Zidane is the son of a Berber couple who migrated to France from Algeria in the mid-1960s. He was born in 1972 in La Castellane, a poor district in the city of Marseille on the Mediterranean coast. The district is mostly inhabited by immigrant families, and has an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent.

The expulsion of Zidane, who had announced that the match against Italy would be the last of his career, brought what many saw as an inglorious end to the career of a player considered the world’s greatest footballer of the last 15 years.

The most controversial moment for Zidane came in the 109th minute of the final, after the Italian player said something rude to him. Materazzi said Zidane had been “extremely arrogant” towards him. He said he had only spoken words to Zidane of a kind “that are repeated many times during a football match.”

In an interview with a French television station, Zidane did not specify what Materazzi had said. He only said the Italian player had spoken “very insulting words, which offended the most intimate part of myself.” He would not say if the Italian had made racist remarks.

“I would have preferred that he hit me directly in the face,” Zidane said.

French media and some football players have been critical of Zidane. The sports daily L’Equipe wrote an open letter to Zidane asking, “How are we going to explain your action to our children, who admire you so much?”

Yaia, a player for the first division club Nice, said Zidane’s reaction was unprofessional. “Insults there are hundreds per match, and your duty as professional is to remain cool, not to react to them. Otherwise, you lose, and your team with you.”

But it is not only immigrants who have defended Zidane.

In a letter to the daily newspaper Libération, Marie Umurerwa, who identified herself as “a mother”, described Zidane’s gesture as “a human reaction, which leads me to admire him more than ever.”

Francis Marmande, university professor and jazz musician, said “Zidane’s brutality makes him the more touching.”

Claire Lasne, theatre director, said Zidane’s action “has placed our people’s dignity and his own higher than a prize given…to those who remain quiet. Long live for you, Zidane!”, she wrote in Libération.

The French player’s foul is being celebrated in a new song by three Paris-based musicians. “Zidane has hit, Zidane has stroked, and we had great fun”, the song goes.

The song has been played on radio stations all over the country. The musicians are now negotiating release of the song commercially.

“When we wrote ‘Zidane has stroked’, we only wanted to console ourselves and our friends for the French defeat against Italy, and to move people to dance,” Sébastien Lipszyc, one of the authors of the song told IPS. “Now if we earn money from the song, so much the better.”

Others are recalling that violent attacks against opponents have marked Zidane’s career.

A recent documentary ‘Zidane, a portrait of the 21st Century’ ends with his expulsion during a match in the Spanish first division, where he played until this year for the club Real Madrid.

Guy Lacombe, coach at the football boarding school where Zidane studied during the mid-1980s, pointed out that he often ordered Zidane to clean the school’s bathrooms as punishment for his outbursts of violence.

“Zidane spent many weeks cleaning the bathrooms,” Lacombe said.

The World Cup burst of anger showed more of the young Zidane to Ayoub Argoubi, a 17-year-old from La Castellane, Zidane’s home town in Marseille. “His header against Materazzi shows that despite everything he has gone through since his youth, he still remains one of us.”

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