Zizou’s issues: football’s aesthetics vs. global ethics
Who would have predicted that on the morning after the grand finale of Germany 2006, and in the days to follow, much of the world would be debating a headbutt and its probably or allegedly racist provocation? The issue has divided people’s opinions, with some believing that the reputation of the game solidly rests on the upholding of a virtue called “sportsmanship,” in which a player should not react to a provocation, however insulting. Others contend that as long as it fails to address the problem of racism head-on (pun coincidental), football as a game does not deserve the attribute of being a beautiful game. Regardless what side of the debate you are on, the incident makes one thing clear: football is more than about athletic aesthetics and kinesthetics. It is also about global ethics and responsibilities in addressing problems of racial injustice and historical inequality. These problems are evident and in need of attention, even if it turned out that Matterazzi’s comment to Zinedine Zidane, popularly known as Zizou to his fans, was benign, if not amiable.
Those who see the game as being more about sportsmanship and athletic aesthetics than about global ethics insist that the best reaction to a provocation on the field is referring the matter to the referee, rather than responding to the provocation. The issue of not responding to provocations has been a defining problem for individuals and groups dealing with problems of social justice for many centuries. It may be said to share philosophical turf with ideas such as non-violence and the biblical ethic of turning the other cheek. Some movements based on these precepts have been successful, but others have merely worked to the advantage of the powerful and privileged, leaving the concerns of powerless and underprivileged groups unattended.
From the perspective of sportsmanship and athletic aesthetics, Zidane should have kept his calm and reported the matter to the referee. But this perspective ignores the question of whether the referee would have believed Zidane, having not been within earshot of the incident. Would the world have believed Zidane? A non-response from Zidane would have in fact meant that the only sound to be heard the morning after would be the deafening cacophony of Italy’s triumph. Would a complaint about racism, in a world in which racism has sometimes been blamed on the victim, have any chance of being heard in such a triumphalist din?
Another point being made is that a non-response reaction to a provocation on the field would have been more appropriate considering that the behavior of sports stars on and off the field has a huge impact on young people worldwide. This is also a good point to make, but it subordinates the problem of racism as being less important than the need to provide young people with impeccable role models. Subordinating the problem of racism to the backyard of perfect, spotless role models strikes me as not only immoral, but also unrealistic and misleading. Do we really expect young people to be that uncritical? Even if we accept that many young people are indeed uncritical and buy wholesale into the myth of the perfect sports star or celebrity, is that the kind of worldview we want to encourage in our young people? For how long are we going to sweep under the carpet the problem of racism and injustice in world football?
The problem of racism should not be seen as superficial and merely having to do with the temperament of players on the field only. It should be seen as a more profound problem, affecting the hopes and aspirations of billions of underprivileged people around the world. It should be seen as representative of the other intractable issues that have so far not been given prominent attention, including the fact that this was another all-Europe affair in which Eurocentrism as both an ideology and reality was on display yet again, as far as the hosting of the tournament, the slots per confederation, and FIFA’s selection of the best 23 players of the tournament. While the diverse ethnic and racial makeup of the French team was one indication of how racism can begin to be overcome in the very heart of Europe itself, that observation is, for the moment, being buried under superfluous condemnations of an act that may have been the culmination of years of pent up rage, as alluded to by those more familiar with Zidane’s experiences growing up and the larger problem of racial integration in French society. This is not a perspective that can be easily understood by some ensconced in the racialized privilege and class comfort of material surfeit.
Rather than seeing Zidane’s headbutt as an ugly act tainting the reputation of a so-called beautiful game, it should be the pervasive racism of European domination of world football that is truly ugly. The beauty of the game should not be seen in terms of aesthetic and kinesthetic displays on the field only. It should also be seen in the actions FIFA takes to make the game live up to that attribute by being an instrument of active world peace and global social justice. With South Africa 2010 on the horizon, one hopes we are heading in that direction.