| Zidane during yesterday’s interview. (Reuters)
Marseille, July 13: “Pourquoi' Why'” was the reproachful headline in France’s biggest sports newspaper L’Equipe the day after the World Cup final, referring to Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt.
Ask a waiter in a caf' in Marseille’s disadvantaged neighbourhood of La Castellane where Zidane grew up and he’ll not ask such philosophical questions. “What he did was wrong, and I’ll tell you why, he should have hit (Marco) Materazzi in the head!”
It may not be the average French reaction but there’s little doubt that the nation has forgiven the gesture that shocked the world. From the common person to the President,there is by and large the feeling that what Zidane did was humanly acceptable.
Compassion and indulgence quickly replaced the public disappointment and anger at France’s defeat. Signs of “Zizou, we love you!” welcomed the team back. According to a newspaper poll following the final, 61 per cent of the people forgave his gesture and 52 per cent understood his reaction.
As for Zidane himself, there were apologies, to children particularly, in yesterday’s interview to Canal+, the TV channel to which he is contractually linked, but no regret for the action.
There he refused to confirm or deny if Materazzi’s insults were racist in nature, but in another interview to TF1, Zidane said: “Shocking, my gesture was shocking' What I find shocking is the vice-president of the Italian Senate (the rightwing Roberto Calderoli) saying the French team is a team of Blacks, Islamists and communists. We should all fight against this plague that is racism.”
Lip-readers appointed by the media have said Materazzi called him a terrorist, linking it to an abuse involving his mother.
That was his only lively comment in an even-tone interview where he shared his post-football plans: get some rest, travel with his father to the land of his parents in Algeria.
Otherwise, it was Zen Zidane, casual in a khaki vest and jeans, calm and soft-spoken but determined, recounting the last match of his career from the very beginning, from his audacious penalty to the red-carded fit of anger.
The interview was an ambiguous act of contrition, on one hand apologetic but on the other combative, asking the provocation to be punished as his reaction had been.
Fifa is moving in that direction. It said disciplinary proceedings against Materazzi were started today after Zidane’s remarks that he was repeatedly insulted by the Italian.
In the interview, however, Zidane did not make clear what was said. “Personal things, hard words that involved my mother and my sister. Very hard words, sometimes words can be harder than a blow, I would have rather been hit than having heard that.”
Zidane has gone beyond an icon-like status, worshipped by all for his technical prowess and now even more apparently for his human flaws. A stadium god, his public persona gave the French nation the occasion to hope, to dream but has also reminded everyone that he could be affected in his intimacy as a person.
There are some, though, who will accept his exceptional footballing abilities but will not buy the apology-and-no-regrets act. “It’s all big business, this interview. It contributed even more to the image of the coolest guy, he’s like the common man, he loves his mom, he apologises for the children. If he didn’t make amends on television, all his sponsors would have dropped him. Adidas has extended his contract for one more year even if he’s retired. I think it’s hypocritical to justify his act using the pretext of women and children,” said Kamel, a 37-year-old social worker who grew up in Zidane’s neighbourhood.
It’s true that the 34-year-old may have retired from football but some of the sponsorships continue. In 2004, he signed a publicity contract as ambassador for Danone for the next 11 years for an undisclosed amount.
He still represents 10 different brands, advertising products such as mineral water, cars, luxury perfume and discount supermarkets, generating an income estimated at more than $9.6 million a year.
He is the only man in France right now guaranteed to be elected President.
But, above all, as he himself put it in yesterday’s interview in his low soft voice, “I’m a man, before everything.”
France loves that.