Chicago Tribune: Up from the mean streets of Marseille

The same drive and aggressiveness that lifted Zidane from slum to stardom also led to the World Cup head-butting incident

Up until his ignominious expulsion from last Sunday’s World Cup championship match for head-butting an opponent, Zinedine Zidane’s journey had read like a fairy tale.

With just the right twists and turns, each chapter seemed to deliver the goods, one after the other, never failing to impress.

Then suddenly and in the dying paragraphs, the fairy tale turned into a Shakespearean tragedy–woeful and wretched. It was as if the chivalrous knight, upon conquering all the dragons in his path, instead chose to cast himself from atop the castle.

No one enjoys such a bad ending to a fairy tale, which perhaps is why the world still finds itself engrossed with one man’s tragedy while glossing over what was supposed to be the real story from the World Cup: Italy being crowned soccer’s world champions for a fourth time.

But what explains the head-butt? After days of speculation, Zidane, of France, revealed his side of the story, claiming that his opponent from the Italian team had cruelly insulted his mother and sister–a charge the Italian player said was only partially true, admitting that he insulted Zidane but denying it was about his mother.

Such an insult may explain what provoked Zidane. Why he chose to respond in the manner he did is another story. There were only 10 minutes left in a long and scintillating career that saw him win every accolade in the book.

So what gave?

I don’t have those answers. It is possible that he simply lost his temper at the end of a long and grueling match for the world championship.

But as a student of Zidane’s long and storied career for the past decade, I would suggest that, perhaps, Zidane the man had come to feel contempt for Zidane the hero. That the boy from the tough La Castellane housing projects in Marseille wanted, finally, to slough off his status as a sports idol and cultural icon. It was as if he chose to disappoint us while he still was in the spotlight.

“You can take the man out of the rough neighborhood, but you can’t take the rough neighborhood out of the man,” teammate Thierry Henry told reporters following France’s loss after a penalty kick shootout.

I could be wrong, but it seemed that Zidane the rebel wished to leave us with a symbol of the torment we never knew he endured–primarily because we never cared to know.

Why would we care to know? Heroes are worth only the joy they bring us.

“It is even more difficult to be an Algerian rather than a black man in France,” former teammate Marcel Desailly said of France’s ghettoized North African immigrant population. “And the problem is that no one knows how much his origins affect his playing ability. He doesn’t talk about it much.”

Zidane suggested there was a connection.

“It’s hard to explain, but I have a need to play intensely every day, to fight every match hard,” he once said in an interview. “This desire never to stop fighting is something else I learned in the place where I grew up. And, for me, the most important thing is that I still know who I am. Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle [a member of a tribe from northeastern Algeria] from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman.”

One wonders if Zidane, as a French hero, felt compelled to fit a mold that forced him to compromise his diverse identity. Perhaps he begrudgingly played this role for a French public that adored him–the same public that often shows disdain for the Zidanes who never made it out of La Castellane.

To my knowledge, the reserved soccer star never complained publicly. But perhaps he wondered if it was really him that they adored.

When Zidane finally broke his silence in an interview with a French TV station, he apologized to the children of the world. But he offered no more detailed explanation and displayed no sense of remorse.

His obstinacy spoke volumes. It was almost as if he relished his most public act of defiance–a poor rich man’s attempt at self-vindication.

Rehab is the founder of a popular Zidane fan Web site and a Chicago Muslim activist

Copyright © 2006 Chicago Tribune