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September 2006 Issue
On the stage of sanity, an attack of madness.
In the temple dedicated to the worship of football and the respect for rules, where Coca-Cola provides happiness, MasterCard grants prosperity, and Hyundai offers speed, the last minutes of the last game of the World Cup are being played out.
It is also the last game of the best, the most admired, the most loved player, who is now bidding farewell to football. The eyes of the world are upon him. And suddenly this king of the party becomes a raging bull and charges a rival, downing him with a head butt to the chest, and then walks away.
He is ejected by the referee and sent off to the jeering of the crowd that would have been an ovation, leaving not by the grand entrance but the tunnel to the dressing rooms.
On the way, he passes the gold cup reserved for the winning team. He doesn't even look at it.
When this World Cup started, the experts said that Zinedine Zidane was old. Mariano Pernia, the Argentine who plays on the Spanish team, said: “The wind is old, and it keeps blowing.”
And France defeated Spain, and in this and the following games Zidane was the youngest of all.
Afterwards, at the end of the Cup, after what happened happened, it was easy to attack the villain of the movie. But it was, and it remains, hard to understand. Is it true? Is it a nightmare, an image from a dream? How could he abandon his followers when they needed him most?
Horacio Elizondo, the referee, was right to give him the red card, but why did Zidane do what he did?
It would seem that the Italian defender Marco Materazzi served up some of those racist insults that madmen usually shriek from the stands.
Zidane, a Muslim, son of Algerians, has known how to defend himself since childhood, when he received similar attacks in the poor suburbs of Marseilles. He knows them well but they sting him like the first time. And his enemies know that provocation works. More than once he has lost his temper is a similarly ugly manner, and Materazzi is not, let us say, renowned for his pristine ways.
This World Cup was marked by the slogans endorsed by the teams at the start of the games against the universal plague of racism, and Zidane was one of the players who made this possible.
It is a burning issue. On the eve of the Cup, far right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen proclaimed that France didn't recognize itself in its players because they were almost all black and because its captain, that Arab, didn't sing the national anthem. The vice president of the Italian Senate, Roberto Calderoli, echoed this, stating that the French team was made up of Negroes, Islamists, and Communists who preferred the Internationale to the Marseillaise and Mecca to Belen. Just earlier, the coach of the Spanish team, Luis Aragones, had called French player Thierry Henry ''a black shit,” and the perpetual president of South American football, Nicolas Leoz, presenting his autobiography, said that he was born in a town of thirty people and 100 Indians.
But can one reduce to an insult, or a string of insults, this tragedy of the player who chose to lose, the star who renounced glory when it was brushing up against him?
Maybe, who knows, maybe his act of rage, without Zidane willing or even knowing it, was a howl of impotence.
Maybe it was a howl of impotence against the insults, the jabs, the spitting, the surreptitious kicks, the expert simulation of fouls and pain, impotence against the theater of performers who whack you and then act like they were never there.
Or perhaps it was a howl of impotence against the devastating success of dirty football, against the dishonesty, cowardice, and avarice of the football that globalization, the enemy of diversity, is forcing on us. In the end, as the World Cup went on, it became clearer and clearer that Zidane was not part of this approach. And his magic, his mastery, his melancholy elegance, deserved to be defeated, because today's world, which mass produces models of success, deserved this mediocre World Cup.
And yet is can also be said that Italy deserved to win the Cup, because all of the teams, some more than others, played Italian-style, with the same game plan, four defenders in a lock-tight formation, with goals scored on counterattacks.
Italy did what it had to do. In the end, this ''catenaccio'' (door bolt) defense produced many a yawn but also four world trophies. In this Cup only two goals were scored against Italy, one in a penalty shot, the other it scored against itself. And its best players were in the back field, not up front: Buffon, the goalie, and Cannavaro, center back.
Eight players from Juventus made the final in Berlin: five played for Italy, three for France. It was a strange coincidence that Juventus was the team most involved in the game-fixing scandal that broke just before the Cup. From Clean Hands to Clean Feet: the Italian judiciary decided to banish to the lower ranks of Serie B and Serie C the country's most powerful teams, including Lazio, Fiorentina, and Milan, owned by the virtuous Silvio Berlusconi, who has committed fraud with impunity in both football and politics. The magistrates proved a series of schemes ranging from buying referees and journalists, falsifying contracts and juggling bank balances, to manipulating television programs.
A government minister floated the idea of amnesty if Italy won the championship. Italy won. Will it all be swept under the carpet, again, as usual? Zidane was thrown out for far less.
Someone, I don't know who, summed up the 2006 World Cup as follows: The players behaved in an exemplary fashion. They didn't drink, they didn't smoke, they didn't play.
Those who from time to time made a goal did not play beautiful football, and those who did, didn't score. Africa was edged out early on, and before long Latin America was exiled as well.
The World Cup became a Eurocup.
The results rewarded what is now called practical sense: high defensive walls and way up front a lone scorer, imploring God for a favor. As is usually the case in football and life, he who plays best loses while he who plays not to lose wins.
The finale of penalty shots only added to the injustice. Until 1968, difficult games were decided with the flip of a coin. In a way, this is still true. The penalty shots seemed too much a matter of sheer chance.
Argentina was better than Germany, and France was better than Italy, but a few seconds mattered more than two hours of play, and Argentina had to go home and France lost the Cup.
There was little imagination on display. The artists left the playing to weightlifters and Olympic runners, who in passing would kick a ball or a rival.
The Cup was so tedious that the owners of the business had no choice but to think up ways to inject enthusiasm into the dreary spectacle.
One of the ideas generated by FIFA was to punish 0-0 ties. Another was to enlarge the goals to increase scoring. And finally, from the school of ''If you don't like the soup, have two bowls,” there was the idea of holding the Cup every two years.
But professional football, that mirror of the world, is played to win, not to be enjoyed, and the calculation of costs makes a mockery of the useless imaginary pirouettes of the bureaucrats that rule world football.
Fortunately all football is not professional. All you need is to step out into the street or onto the beaches to see that the ball can still roll along with joy.
In professional football, the kind on television, there is little joy to be seen. We seem condemned to nostalgia for the old days when there were five forwards, and to the sad recognition that now there is just one. And at the rate we are going, not even he will remain: one day there will be only defenders.
Zoologist Roberto Fontanarrosa has proved it: the forward and the panda are endangered species.
Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan writer and journalist, is author of Open Veins of Latin America and Memory of Fire. This article is published with permission of IPS Columnist Service.