The Head Butt Furor: A Window on Europe's Identity Crisis

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The reason the furor over French soccer star Zinedine Zidane's head-butt in the World Cup final has reached such a fever pitch — especially since his televised interview Wednesday did little to clear things up — is that it's about much more than trash talking. Even if Zidane avoided confirming or denying the initial speculation that there had been a racial dimension to the insult that provoked him, the incident is a reflection of the social divisions that persist in an increasingly multi-cultural Europe.

Ever since France's glorious 1998 World Cup title, that country has looked to Zidane, who grew up the son of a poor Algerian immigrant, to personify the possibility of social harmony. That's a tough call for a man all too aware that his own success does nothing to change the circumstances of the disenfranchised immigrant populations of France's urban ghettos whence he came, and where he continues to place his primary allegiance.

Simply being Zinedine Zidane, in fact, requires navigating a political minefield. He is at once at war with the leaders of the French far right like Jean-Marie Le Pen who deny his Frenchness; with Algerians who question his Algerianness, and perhaps also with partisans of a view of Arab-Islamic identity to whom the fact that he is both a Berber (Algeria's non-Arab minority) and a self-proclaimed "non-practicing Muslim" may be anathema.

When he speaks of "my people," Zidane refers not necessarily to all of France, but more specifically to the disenfranchised youths on the mean streets of Le Castellane, the immigrant ghetto in northern Marseilles where he grew up. Zidane learned to fight on the streets of Le Castellane, where respect was earned by not walking away from a challenge. And his early soccer coaches were quickly alerted to the violent rage that could be provoked by taunts from players and fans about his origins and family. They taught him to channel that rage into superlative soccer skills, but it periodically erupted in violent outbursts.

In 1998, Zidane was banned for two games after stomping on Saudi Arabia's Fuad Amin, whom people close to Zidane said had leveled a racial slur against the player. Zidane was also forced to defend his Algerian identity — and pride in Algeria's fight against the French — in response to charges, first leveled by a Le Pen flunky but echoed during a torrid Algeria-France match, that Zidane's father had been a harki, the term loosely translated as collaborator and used to describe Algerians who had fought for France in the colonial war.

In fact, the conflicting visions and divided loyalties that shape Zidane's Europe were on display in the World Cup Final long before the notorious head-butt. For France, all but four of the 14 players used in the game were children or grandchildren of Africa, from both sides of the Sahara. Italy's lineup, by contrast, had no players of immigrant origin (although Mauro Camoranesi's grandparents had left Italy for Argentina) — the Azzuri were, to put it bluntly, the whitest of the Western European teams at the World Cup. Italian soccer has long been a magnet for fascist nostalgia of the far right, and festivities following its triumph were marred by Swastikas spray-painted on the walls of Rome's historic Jewish quarter, as well as a comment by a former minister in the previous government of Silvio Berlusconi that Italy had triumphed over a team of "negroes, communists and Moslems."

That complaint has long been shared by the anti-immigrant far right in France, whose leader Le Pen complained that France "cannot recognize itself in the national side." Still, it was precisely the makeup of its national team that allowed French soccer to play a major role in helping France imagine for itself a more cosmopolitan identity.

The team that won the World Cup in 1998 was famously celebrated as a melange of "Black, Blanc, Beur" (black, white and Arab). Le Pen grumbled then, too, that the victors of 1998 were not "a real French team," but nobody cared: France had once again achieved the global greatness that had long eluded it on other fronts, and the architect of its triumph was a national treasure known as Zizou. But the continuing debate over the Zidane head-butt is a reminder that the harmony represented by the makeup of the French soccer team bears little resemblance to daily life in the French urban ghetto — of which the riots of late 2005 served as the harshest reminder.

Whatever the words that provoked Zidane's last on-field head-butt, the rage it revealed may derive in no small part from the strain of being Zizou. He told an interviewer two years ago, "It's hard to explain but I have a need to play intensely every day, to fight every match hard. And this desire never to stop fighting is something else I learnt in the place where I grew up. And, for me, the most important thing is that I still know who I am. Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle [a Berber region of Algeria] from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman."

Not surprisingly, for many of the same ghetto residents he calls "my people," Zidane's head-butt of Marco Materazzi was a source of pride rather than shame. Kids on the streets of France's banlieue told reporters that defending his honor was more important than the World Cup. Indeed, Zidane's mother may have been speaking for more than just her family when she told a British newspaper, "Our whole family is deeply saddened that Zinedine's career should end with a red card but at least he has his honor. Some things are bigger than football."

Indeed, the entire Zidane episode may have been reminder of the limits of sports to transform society. As much as the so-called beautiful game would like to represent a color-blind and cosmopolitan ideal of a multi-cultural society, the reality off the field — and occasionally even on the field — is a lot uglier.