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Zidane’s farewell, France’s hangover

Patrice de Beer
9 July 2006

Anyone who has ever woken in the morning with a hangover will certainly understand how I feel this Monday. Bad, really bad, worse than bad. I remember too well what happened last night but it looks like an unending bad dream. Falling asleep with the terrible image of Zidane head-butting his Italian counterpart in front of my eyes and finding, horresco referens, that Jacques Chirac is still "my" president.

And I am not even really a soccer fan; I go more for rugby. Moreover, I watched the game in a tiny village close to the Spanish border where rugby – whether the "union" or "league" variety – is the sport, and where people follow the Heineken Cup or the six-nations tournament with much more passion than the soccer world cup. But, last night, the whole village was there, in the main square, munching mussels and chips – with wine of course – while watching the game on two TV sets.

openDemocracy not being the sports channel, I never expected to have to write, especially as hot news, on the final game of the world cup. But pressures from deputy editor David Hayes were too much to bear. So, here I am, transfigured as a soccer pundit, having to write, not on a victory (that would be much too easy), but on a defeat, and - with difficulty - trying not to look like a bad loser.

So, the first thing I did was to buy the foreign papers – non-Italian as well as non-French – to see if we had watched the same game. And I felt relieved; yes, we had watched the same game, with the Italians the better team in the first half and the French for the remainder of the game. And yes, Zinedine "Zizou" Zidane had played like a dream before acting like a hooligan, and was sent off for delivering a head-butt to the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi in extra-time. In that moment, he resembled less the soccer idol worthy of a place in the sport's history than England's Wayne Rooney or one of those Portuguese or Dutch players booked - by the dozen - during one of the most infamous games of the tournament.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine" (October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression" (November 2005)

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA" (January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France" (March 2006)

"Ukraine's inspiring boredom" (April 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis" (April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"France and Europe: the democratic deficit exposed" (June 2006)

"Politics and soccer: France sings Les Bleus" (June 2006)

The Zizou enigma

We may have reached fantastic achievements in science – with DNA, cloning or stem–cell research – but we will probably never know what hides in the depth of somebody's mind. What makes a person tick, what drives him or her to self–destructive action that he or she will never be able to forgive themselves for? It is just like that with Zidane, one of the greatest soccer players of all time and certainly – until last night at least – the greatest French soccer player.

Zidane delivered increasingly more compelling performances throughout the tournament – shrugging aside Spain and Brazil, disposing of Portugal with brilliant kicks and dribbles, in majestic leadership of a transformed team (to recall how badly France played at the start, just read the column I wrote for openDemocracy, "Politics and soccer: France sings Les Bleus" 20 June 2006 – where I compared France's elderly team captain with the advanced years of the nation's political captain, Jacques Chirac).

Then, having almost reached the moon, Zidane fell right down to earth, bringing his team down with him. It is difficult to reconcile yourself to such a devastating last goodbye from a magnificent player. The worst thing for Zidane now, as the sports daily L'Equipe wrote, will be to explain to tens of thousands of kids around the world how he could have committed that "header" – letting them down, falling like a rookie into the trap laid for him, becoming a new Othello fooled by his own Iago.

What made him lose his cold blood (whatever the provocation – and there were many) and react in a way that made a red card the only option? Maybe the 34–year–old will, from his retirement, give us a clue. The circumstances of last night's trench warfare - with both teams exhausted after a month of the toughest games, the French more so due to their age, but the Italians playing under the stress of an imminent court decision in the calciopoli scandal, which could see seven of the Azzurri and their four clubs demoted to the second or third division – suggested that the crucial advantage would go to the team and the individuals who could keep their cool until the bitter end. In the 1998 world cup (and the 2000 European championship), it was the Italians who flinched; this time, it was the French.

Two kinds of circus

But soccer has become far more than a sport. It is now a Barnum show, a gladiatorial combat, showered with glittering lights and astronomical amounts of money. It can excite and cast into despair an entire nation. Italy's wild celebration on Sunday night – which can only do good for the new, weak and divided centre–left government of Romano Prodi – is an example of the first extreme of the emotional pendulum; the gloom that overcame Brazil when the "best team in the world" was sent home packing, and now the deflation of France, is an example of the second.

In each case, soccer can be the momentary symbol of the nation itself. It becomes especially important – in true Roman Panem et Circenses ("bread and circuses") fashion – when a nation is not feeling well, when one thing after another goes wrong, when politicians (especially at the very top) let you down, when citizens start craving for some good news or something to motivate them.

This is why Jacques Chirac – who has a nose for such opportunities, and whose popularity soared on the back of Les Bleus' triumph in Paris in 1998 – made a point of travelling to Berlin to watch the final, and to be seen with the team. It was a perfect opportunity for the president to prop up an image that is currently, as the French say, dans les chaussettes ("in the socks").

But soccer, like history, never repeats itself exactly – even though it can give fresh life to history's landmark cultural quotations like Franz Schubert's "unfinished symphony" (and thus dignify an author who had never heard about soccer). 2006 was not 1998, and the French – albeit after some fantastic games – are coming home with Le Blues.

The dream is over. A new team will have to be rebuilt before the next European championship (2008) and world cup (2010), one that combines the experience of those elder players who remain with the youth and enthusiasm of a younger generation. The team will need a new leader, able to fuse the different communities (Black, Blanc, Beur - Black, White, Arabs) it represents, and accommodate the fluid identities of those like Frank Ribéry, one of the few whites in the squad, who has converted to Islam.

But am I still dreaming about football or am I back in politics? The next French political "trophy", after all, will be awarded in May 2007. At this stage, voters still seem to want to send the old generation into retirement – starting with Chirac himself, but perhaps including also the former socialist prime minister and likely presidential candidate Lionel Jospin.

A newer, fresher set of politicians – interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy on the right, socialist (and woman) Ségolène Royal on the left – are campaigning for the French people's vote. One of the hottest topics they will have to tackle will be the issue of social and ethnic integration which, despite Les Bleus' example, has failed in France. That already makes two differences with the climax of the 2006 contest: there are no mixed soccer teams (yet), and the Italians won't be voting!

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