Head butting or trash talking—what crosses the line?

Sideline Commentary

Zinedine Zidane's moment of fury tarnished his last World Cup game.
Zinedine Zidane's moment of fury tarnished his last World Cup game.
Photo courtesy of worldcupblog.org

On July 9, 2006, French soccer player Zinedine Zidane lowered his head and rammed Marco Materazzi in the chest during the 110th minute of the World Cup final, sending the Italian player to the ground.

Did the soccer world really witness the most untimely, uncharacteristic loss of emotional control in arguably the greatest soccer player of our generation?

This was not Zidane’s first such infraction in a World Cup. In the 1998, Zidane was sent off for stomping on the back of Saudi Arabia’s captain while he lay on the turf. Funny that the only memories some have of Zidane in the ‘98 World Cup are his two goals against Brazil in the final.

Zidane’s head butt on Materazzi certainly warranted a red card (and admiration for the style and vigour with which it was delivered). In the end, the right call was made.

Zidane’s reaction to Materazzi certainly stepped outside of the bounds of sportsmanlike conduct. We can understand his frustration, but we cannot justify it. There is no question that Zidane was out of line, and his three-game suspension, $6,000 fine and order to complete community service was fitting punishment.

People have thrown heaps of scorn and criticism at him, stopping short only at blaming him for France’s loss.

Materazzi, however, received a two-game suspension, a $4,000 fine and no community service. Does it not seem unjust that the instigator of this incident does not carry equal burden of the blame?

The real issue here is a matter of the sportsmanship, or rather, lack thereof, that Materazzi displayed. Trash talking, mockery and intimidation are all accepted, possibly integral, parts of every sport. Dominant players on the pitch can be thrown off their game if opposing players can get into their heads. But even with this type of behaviour, there are bounds to what is considered tolerable and what is considered obscene.

Throat slashing and racial slurs are banned from the NBA, NFL, and NHL. Players give and receive when it comes to trash talking, there isn’t supposed to be lasting damage. It’s not supposed to be personal.

Materazzi crossed the line.

At a post-head butt interview, Zidane told French Canal Plus channel that Materazzi made cruel remarks about Zidane’s mother and sister, the former having been admitted to the hospital the day of the match. During the interview, he said that he “would rather have taken a blow to the jaw than have heard that.” Materazzi denied ever mentioning Zidane’s family.

Despite the negative press, Zidane said he does’t regret his decision. Don’t buy it. Deep down, he probably feels a sense of disappointment for his disgraceful exit from soccer, and for potentially costing France the World Cup. However, Materazzi and his country are a different story. Thus far, the Italian soccer federation has yet to take responsibility for its team’s actions. Fox news reported that former Italian captain Paolo Maldini said that Materazzi’s punishment was “scandalous” and the Italian soccer federation is still debating whether or not to appeal the sentence. If Materazzi has a grain of sportsmanship in his body, he too, will have some regret and disappointment for his role in this incident.

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