Under the Neem Tree

The Zidane Finale

The Zidane Finale
  • PublishedAugust 31, 2006

The Akan people of Ghana have canonised the idea of cause and effect with a proverb that says: “If nothing had gone and stamped on the dried palm leaf, it would not have crackled noisily” (Biribi ankoka papa a, enka ennye twereder).

I would be a hypocrite if I did not admit that my interest in the World Cup waned the moment Brazil kicked Ghana out of the tournament. It wasn’t that I expected Ghana to win by all means. No, what I didn’t expect was that Brazil would win with goals, some of which were offside. The refereeing of some of the World Cup matches was indeed atrocious. The yellow card which kept Michael Essien out of the Ghana side, for instance, was criticised even by the American coach, Bruce Arena – against whose team Essien was playing when he got the card. Arena, said he thought Essien’s tackle had been a “fair” one.

I think the time has come for Fifa to introduce video replays to assist referees in the same way that video is now regularly used to help cricket umpires decide whether a player is in, or out, after an alleged run out or stumping; whether the ball had crossed the boundary and was therefore to be considered as having earned the batter four runs, or six runs, as the case might be; and whether a catch was indeed a good catch or had been “dropped”.

Now, when the idea of using video replays in cricket matches was first mooted, it was argued that cricket was already a very slow game and that video replays would slow it down even more. But cricket spectators have now got to appreciate the usefulness of video replays, which have put an end to arguments that formerly used to cause a lot of friction between umpires and players, and, of course, between the respective spectators of the different countries engaged in Test Matches.

If cricket, which is supposed to be a more “conservative” game than football, is allowing itself to benefit from modern advances in technology, why should football turn its back on such advances? The argument that camera replays would slow the game down does not hold water. After all, when a player goes down, claiming to be injured, play is stopped, and the time consumed in attending to the injured player is added to the period allotted to the game.

A video replay to determine whether the ball did touch someone’s hand or arm; whether the whole circumference of the ball had entered the net and a goal had therefore been scored; whether a player flagged as being offside by one of the assistant referees was indeed offside; whether a fallen player had been cut down or had dived – these and other contentious decisions can be referred to an umpire closeted in the video room, in much the same way as is done at cricket matches.

One more argument in favour of employing video at football matches is that even in America, where the attention span of spectators is deemed to be unusually scanty, (and where commercial “spots” on TV during a match are also extremely valuable), televised matches are regularly stopped whilst umpires iron out difficult decisions.

American football goes through scores of stoppages; so do basketball and baseball. If stoppages can be tolerated in the home of the “quick-fix”, how much more in football, and the World Cup at that, where an estimated two billion people from all over the world, and from all walks of life, can be expected to watch the final match, and therefore every decision must not only be correct, but, like Caesar’s wife, be seen to be correct?

My unhappiness at the refereeing was, of course, to be dwarfed, in the final, by the controversy surrounding Zinedine Zidane’s head-butting of the Italian player, Marco Materazzi, just when the match was about to reach its climax of penalties. This was the most unkindest cut of all. Having lost Ghana in the tournament, I was rooting for the French team, because it had so many African-descended players in it and represented to every black person, the type of team that we knew would exist in every country with a mixed population, were there to be no racial prejudice in the world.

If you doubt that racial discrimination exists in football, ask yourself: How is it that it was only since 1998 that France discovered that it had so many excellent black players? Why is it that Britain has still not got a team populated by blacks in the same way as France? Anyway, my friends and I were all rooting for France, and were sure that France would win when it came to penalties, because, of course, Zidane had already scored with a penalty. It was Zidane’s last international match. If it was his penalty that won the game for France, wouldn’t it be great? His final sendoff. They were already calling him “Zizou president!” What would they say if he carried the World Cup with him back to Paris?

But alas, it was too good a story to be true, wasn’t it? Another multi-racial team to win glory for France in the same way as it did in 1998? And this in a year in which there had been racial disturbances in France, due to the racial discrimination that young black Frenchmen suffer at the hands of their country’s institutions?

The spirit of racial strife entered the Berlin stadium. Marco Materazzi said something to Zinadine Zidane. The gentle-looking Zidane, a wizard of a dribbler, whose footwork is so sure and magical that one can imagine him lying in bed dreaming up moves for hours, a man from whom it is impossible to expect anything other than what is supremely artistic, was provoked enough to turn back, after initially walking past Materazzi, and head-butt Materazzi! Everyone who saw it was shocked. This meant Zidane would be sent off. And France would lose – with 10 minutes or so of the game remaining.

Apparently, the referee didn’t actually see the head-butting incident. But he was alerted by a fourth referee on the touchline. And he gave Zidane a red card. This was the first time a fourth referee had been seen officiating at a big match, and many people supposed that in fact the main referee had been alerted to the incident by a referee in the video room. Anyway, Zidane was sent off. And France inevitably lost the penalty shootout. Could a defeat be more terrible?

But what at all had Materazzi said to Zidane? No one knew; some newspapers employed alleged lip-readers, who claimed that Materazzi had called Zidane’s mother and sister “terrorists” or “whores”. Eventually, Zidane himself went on TV to talk about the incident. Or more accurately, to not talk about it. He apologised to children who might have seen his violent action. But although he said he was apologising for the head-butting, he said he did not regret it, for if he regretted it, then it would mean that Materazzi had been “right” in what he did.

Zidane’s refusal to reveal exactly what Materazzi said to provoke that head-butt must have been highly frustrating for those with no understanding of the Berber culture to which Zidane belongs. In that culture – as in many African cultures – the issue of “honour” is taken very seriously. So, if Zidane had repeated on TV, those “difficult”, “hard” insults hurled at him by Materazzi, he would have displayed a “lack of dignity”, and would have dishonoured himself by insulting himself, through insulting his own mother and his sister.

There is not much point in trying to change people’s minds on an issue as charged as this. But I think it is useful to examine the mindset that led to Zidane acting in the way that he did. We, the Akan of Ghana, have much the same attitude towards honour and personal dignity as the Berbers. In our childhood, we are taught that if someone insults another person, and you then go and tell or verbalise to the insulted person what the other person had said about him or her, then it is YOU who have insulted him or her. This is obviously done to warn us to avoid back-biting, which, in modern parlance, would be called “bad-mouthing”. Nothing destroys society – especially a tightly-knit ethnic society – more than bad-mouthing people and sowing discord between them.

African cultures are also different from European cultures in that legal abstractions do not, for the most part, come into play in the dynamic relationships that exist between human beings. The objective of our laws is always to ensure that real “natural justice” is done. Hence, anyone arguing that the reaction to a provocation should be punished, but not the provocation itself, would be thought to be quite mad.

The Akan of Ghana have canonised the idea of cause and effect with a proverb that says: “If nothing had gone and stamped on the dried palm leaf, it would not have crackled noisily” (Biribi ankoka papa a, enka ennye twereder).
I think the Zidane episode must be used by Fifa to re-examine some of the practices in football that are making the game an abomination to players such as Samuel Eto’o of Barcelona. Is Fifa’s campaign, “Say No To Racism” a serious one? At the moment, it seems a grubby one, in which players and managers who make racist comments, and clubs whose spectators use monkey chants, are merely slapped on the wrist as punishment.

If the punishments were severe enough, they would deter others from engaging in such acts. Even Materazzi might have thought twice before provoking Zidane, for fear that he might be charged with racist behaviour.

As Zidane remarked, the episode was witnessed by between one and two billion people, which means that a World Cup final is perhaps the most-watched global event of our age. Fifa should take advantage of this opportunity to reform and become truly subject to global concerns.

Taking away Zidane’s golden football wouldn’t have solved a problem that will still be rearing its ugly head 20 years from now, unless very firm action is taken today to eliminate it. Zidane told the world: “I am a man first. I would have much rather taken a punch to the face than hear those insults”. This is more a message to Fifa and its European-inspired rules than to anyone else. Football is a world game, and world culture must be of interest to it.

Indeed, Fifa has tried to be even-handed by handing down match bans to the two players – three in the case of Zidane and two for Materazzi – plus fines of just over $3,000 for Zidane and $2,000 for Materazzi. Of course, since Zidane has retired, banning him from matches is purely of academic interest. Materazzi will be the one who will feel the effects of the ban. And I think that is as it should be. If the great game of football is to be weaned back for its true owners – the peoples of the world – Fifa must take note and reform its entire approach to how it organises the game.

Written By
Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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