Radical Reason

"Nil sine ratione."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I'll stray from my normal policy discussions for something a bit different - the World Cup.

Zidane's head-butt to the chest of Materazzi is big news worldwide, even in America. And with good reason - in the world of sport, rarely does a superstar of this magnitude deliver such a cheap shot on the field of play, regardless of the provocation. I can't necessarily defend his actions, although based on the rumors about the insults delivered, I certainly can understand the blind rage that must have consumed Zidane. And soccer has an ugly history with racism. Comments like those made by the Spanish coach sometime back about Thierry Henry would never fly in America. (At least, I'd like to think that they would never fly here.) If Materazzi did call Zidane a "dirty terrorist" or some variant thereof, I can only express shock. It doesn't excuse Zidane's actions on the field of play, but Materazzi would be confirmed as callous, classless, and quite simply idiotic.

With all that said, I despise the direction of the worldwide sports commentariat on this issue. Every major sportswriter seems to be going to great lengths to pile on Zidane and condemn him and his actions. Every comment inevitably cries about his tarnished legacy and his fall from grace. He no longer should be considered worthy of comparisons to Maradona and Pele, they say. He is simply a solid player who was predisposed to lose control of his senses, who won some but is not iconic. This after the commentariat had spent 2 weeks fawning over St. Zizou, the man who came out of retirement like an athletic Cincinnatus to lead an aging French team to one last World Cup. And based on his play, some degree of fawning was justified, though perhaps not the hyperbole to which most commentators are predisposed.

Quite frankly, this rebellion by the commentariat is ludicrous. Sports broadcasters have recently taken to anointing themselves the moral arbiters of culture through from their perch high above the sport of the day. The first thing that comes to mind is Joe Buck's declared war on Randy Moss after the Minnesota/Oakland receiver faux-mooned the crowd in a regular season game. Put aside the fact that this relatively funny, or at the very worst just stupid. If the fans don't like it, they should boo more. Fans do not need Joe Buck to declare his moral superiority from the booth. And furthermore, it's not the place of the announcer to comment as if the field were his fiefdom. Track the play, throw in bits of worthwhile analysis, and let the fan or viewer make judgments on his own. This onslaught of moralizing seems to derive from a desire on the part of the announcer to be enshrined in the broadcasting hall of fame, in that pantheon of great calls - with the calls for Bobby Thomson's home run, Jack Brickhouse's "Go Crazy," and Vin Scully's call of Kirk Gibson's homer. What made those calls great was the announcer's ability to let the game stand on its own, colored slightly by the distinctive voices of those announcers. The athletic achievement shined, and the announcer refused to be anything more than our companion in the moment. A passion for the game, an identification with both the fan and the athlete, and the ability to make the game a narrative are what make an announcer memorable - not instant social commentary and a desire to inject oneself into the action.

Which brings me back to Zidane. The man was brilliant throughout the World Cup. Granted, I'm biased as a fan of Les Bleus and specifically Zidane, but his individual performance was peerless. His skill with the ball, his crisp passing, his delivery in the clutch (with one glaring exception) was unmatched. Especially with the inconsistency of the rest of the French squad, the disappearance of Henry (and his refusal to be onside) in big moments, and the overall age of the French team, it seemed as if Zidane willed his team to perform, much like so many superstars in other sports did. It'd be too much to go into the psyche of the superstar, specifically with regard to hyper-competitiveness, but that element was present as well.

Therefore, althought the head-butt will be a sad sidenote to this year's World Cup, it's premature and foolish for legions of talking heads to launch their assassination attempt on what is undeniably a brilliant career and a brilliant World Cup performance. Athletes become tragic figures every once in awhile. Perhaps that has happened to Zidane. But let the fan decide that on his own. Assassination by commentator is a grave mistake.

Let's just rejoice that Joe Buck wasn't in the booth for that game. He may well have shot Zidane on the field.

Sidenote: check out Bernard Henri-Levy's piece on Zidane for a lofty analysis of the situation, one that awakens and satisfies my love for the classics. I think he's dead on.

And of course, I have to admit that I enjoyed Dr. Z's too.