Z/Z: The Headbutt Buzz

Andrew Ventimiglia

The blogosphere's amateur semioticians explain Zinédine Zidane's head-butt seen around the world.

Not since the Zapruder film has one media moment generated such a flurry of interpretative activity as famed French football star Zinédine Zidane's head-butt in the final minutes of the 2006 World Cup final. The head-butt seen around the world has even largely eclipsed discussion about Italy's win, suggesting that the iconic image of this World Cup tournament ultimately may not be the Azzurri triumphantly clutching their award in victory but rather a dejected Zidane walking mere feet away from it on the way to the locker room.

Not only have the major news outlets already generated endless columns of print attempting to explain Zissou's truly dumbfounding act, but also every genre of blog from sports to pop culture to racial politics has chimed in with its own myriad perspectives ranging in tone from vitriolic condemnations to hesitant defenses. This epitomizes the blogosphere's growing ability to bring to bear the collective analytic skill of a whole range of amateur-media semioticians to a subject. In this case, their curiosity, enthusiasm, and endless capacity to opine allows them to imagine a head-butt in the final minutes of a World Cup -- presumably the epitome of 21st century media spectacle -- as a profoundly human interaction between two frustratingly complex, flawed, and ultimately enigmatic figures caught at the center of a media whirlwind.

The surfeit of differing perspectives online and their sometimes serpentine complexity may finally put to rest the quality of concision as a key attribute of news reportage. Zidane's head-butt has been imagined alternatively as emblematic of institutional racism, the intrinsic violence of sports competition, the human capacity for irrational behavior and more. In fact, moral condemnations of or support for Zidane's behavior were often only the first step in bloggers' attempts to find out why it happened in the first place, and ultimately what it all "really" means. Reportage of the head-butt seemed to be trying to respond to a genuine viewer's desire not just to know Zinédine Zidane but to understand him. Could media analysis, which has often been derided by theorists like Noam Chomsky for its crippling limitations, finally be catching up with the complexity of human life as it is experienced? Or does the spinning of each successive story around the Internet campfire just serve to keep us entertained and artificially sustain interest in an event that we will never really understand?

For those of us who might have missed the game (the United States), the whole fiasco occurred in the 110th minute of the World Cup final and was over in roughly thirty seconds. During a French shot on goal with the score tied 1-1, Italian defender Marco Materazzi clumsily grabbed a handful of Zinédine Zidane's jersey. After the play, the two players walked back up field exchanging words. Without any further prompting Zidane jogged ahead of Materazzi, turned around to face him, squared up and suddenly thrust his head directly into his opponent's chest. Since three of the four officials seemed to have missed the head-butt entirely, it took some moments before order could be restored and a red card (signaling ejection from the game) issued.

The brevity and concision of the whole encounter is part of what makes the head-butt so uncommonly fascinating. Like a miniature pas de deux, Zidane dances ahead of his partner, sharply pivots, and delivers an incredibly economical blow to Materazzi's abdomen. This is no vulgar hockey brawl -- wildly flailing fists and gnashing teeth -- but rather an act of violence as precisely executed as any header Zidane has delivered to the net of an opponent's goal.

While plainly shocking, Zidane's outburst is far from unique in the history of sport. Football certainly has had its abundant share of ignominious moments (although admittedly not in the last few minutes of a World Cup final), and so do all of the United States' popular pastimes. Two years ago basketball star Ron Artest went mildly berserk during a fight in Detroit and charged the stands to deliver a faceful of punch to a heckling fan, which resulted in his unprecedented one-year suspension. In 1997, heavyweight ex-champion of the world Mike Tyson bent the rules of boxing by biting off a chunk of opponent Evander Holyfield's right ear in response to an earlier accidental head-butt. Much of the sports industry secretly thrives off these momentary outbursts of violent spectacle that continually threaten to erupt in even the most pastoral of sports, as evidenced by the reams of reportage generated by the periodic bench-clearing brawls that enliven the game of baseball. And while I freely admit to being uninitiated to the pleasures of NASCAR racing, ESPN highlights suggests it is little more than an institutionalized form of rubbernecking.

Yet Zidane has become the unwitting focus in a new era of media analysis. A few hours after the game's conclusion, footage of Zidane's head-butt began to circulate far and wide across the Internet landscape, appearing anywhere from official FIFA highlight reels to broadcast excerpts hosted on video-trafficking behemoths YouTube and Google Video. A mere 16 seconds from France's TF1 broadcast, ending with the announcer's decidedly sorrowful plea, "Pour quoi? Pour quoi?!" was enough to convey the quasi-Shakespearian gravitas of Zidane's blunder to any Web surfer, regardless of their previous interest in the World Cup, the players, the teams, or the whole sport of football. Upon watching the clip, like the French announcer, so too did a global audience collectively ask, "Why?"

In response to that question, an army of the Internet's best amateur media analysts descended like a cloud of hungry locusts on that weighty question. In the interval between the event and Zidane's explanation several days later, his enigmatic act would quickly become the sports world's Rosebud: an event that demanded to be understood and whose explanation promised to unravel the tightly wound psychology of two of football's greatest players.

With clips of the head-butt readily available for obsessive, second-by-second microanalysis by any number of would-be semioticians, both major media and the blogosphere took to dissecting Zidane's skull-punch move-by-move. Did Marco Materazzi really tweak Zidane's nipple on the previous play as ESPN analyst Alex Chick suggested? Did Zidane's delivery of the head-butt to Matarazzi's chest represent an honest attempt to avoid serious damage to Materazzi's face or rather an insidious move to fracture ribs, pierce lungs, and maybe even break his heart? These and countless other questions became worthy subjects for lengthy musings, forum topics, and the occasional AP news bulletin.

Unnatural amounts of time and energy were spent trying to determine the degree of pre-meditation in Zidane's outburst. Could he really have looked around in the few seconds before delivering the head-butt to determine whether the referees were actually watching him? Though truly committed supporters of Zidane are few -- at least in the English-speaking press -- those that offered a tempered and apologetic response to the head-butt tended to rely on a defense that closely resembled a temporary insanity plea. Tabula Rasa, at the blog Nomological Net, took the debacle as an opportunity to reflect on our psychological automatic-response mechanism that he claims determines 99 percent of our daily actions. While stopping short of actually commending the act, Rasa expressed pity towards Zidane and empathized with his incapacity to conquer the demons of involuntary reaction with rational thought.

Naturally, a great deal of Zissou's guilt and responsibility depended on the conclusions drawn by viewers in response to each of these numerous details. But, nipple-pinching aside, many (rightly, if Zidane's own explanation can be accepted at face value) assumed that it was Materazzi's words that provoked Zidane to react so violently; therefore a great deal of explication depended on discovering just what words were exchanged between the two players. Unfortunately, while the video provides ample visual clues, the audio track remains inscrutably silent.

Zidane's apologetic interview on Canal Plus resolved little, as he explained only that Materazzi cursed at him and slurred his mother and sister but remained tight-lipped regarding the exact words used. While media in Brazil and the UK assembled a crack team of lip readers to try to figure it out (none of whom was able to reach a consensus on what was said) bloggers freely speculated about Materazzi's well-placed barb.

The most plausible explanations suggested the insult must have been related to racism, a subject all too familiar in football. Richard Brown at the New Republic Online wrote, "Rumor has it that Materazzi called Zidane's father a 'harki' -- the Arabic term for Algerians who fought for France against Algeria during the occupation." Indeed, for many, racism seemed to be the only category of insult by which Zidane could be pardoned for his act. Abbas Raza at 3quarksdaily wrote, "If he attacked Zidane racially, then Materazzi got what he deserved and should be punished further. Am I excusing Zidane? If he was racially insulted, yes I am." French anti-racism group SOS Racisme also decided to participate in the growing media frenzy. Shortly after the game they claimed that 'well-informed sources' in the world of football told them that Materazzi called Zidane a "dirty terrorist," to which Materazzi innocently replied, "I did not call him a terrorist. I'm ignorant. I don't even know what the word means."

On the other hand, many viewers, rather than excavating the video for telling details, instead set about trying to make sense of the event by framing it within a larger narrative schema. Bloggers on either side of the divide compiled less than pristine track records suggesting a long ignominious history for both players. During the 1998 World Cup, Zidane stomped on a Saudi Arabian player who presumably had been baiting him with racial comments throughout the match. To some this act suggested a longer "history of irascibility" for the illustrious French football star. Meanwhile, blogger Mutoni found that many considered Materazzi to be "one of the dirtiest players in Italian soccer" and displayed plenty of clips to prove it.

Some went to the trouble of constructing differing edits of the World Cup and posting them to YouTube, casting Zidane alternatively as villain justly exposed to an audience of millions or tragic hero in danger of losing a legacy. Type in "Zidane head-butt" and you are rewarded with a motley crew of sliced-and-diced videos of the event. Absurdly subtitled clips of the players' verbal exchange stand side-by-side with poorly doctored versions whose crooked paint-brushed arrows attempt to point out crucial details (Is Zidane actually smiling just before he delivers the head-butt?) that a less diligent viewer may have missed.

While I'm at a loss to explain the particularly popular clip that shows Materazzi bursting into flames upon contact with Zidane's head or the video that frames the head-butt as a Mortal Kombat fatality (not to mention the Zidane-themed online game) others display a more straightforward and easily decipherable opinion on the event. For instance, one version introduces the head-butt with a title card that reads, "Do Not Fuck With This Man!" and concludes with a triumphant highlight reel of Zidane's career-best moments scored to an aggressive techno soundtrack.

It seems that, though many may be loath to admit it, these rogue editors of the YouTube frontier are not the only ones who enjoyed Zidane's violent outburst. As the Deadspin blog so eloquently put it, "Even though it was over-the-top and violent and kind of insane�we think it's one of the coolest things we've ever seen in a soccer match."

So what does this whole fiasco have to say about the new generation of informed media viewers? It seems few are happy to simply condemn Zidane and have done with it. But rather than throw up the red card of moral relativism and condemn the Internet's growing army of Davids working against the media Goliaths, I might suggest that with each additional recursion in the cascade of interpretations, we look to restore added layers of complexity and ambiguity to the figures in this sports drama. As the original 'real' moment of the head-butt becomes lost in the increasingly dense mediations of the event crowding the Internet, each new interpretation may be paradoxically restoring some of the humanity so often stripped by coherent and easily digestible narratives of good and evil.

Of course, none of the uproar will have much of an effect on the official story as determined by FIFA's investigating committee. Appropriate punishments will be designed for Zidane, perhaps with an accompanying wrist slap for Materazzi's unsportsmanlike conduct, and the world of football will continue unabated. FIFA even seems to be cleaning up some of the growing Internet congestion, perhaps suggesting Goliath's last resort against the amateur semoticians -- intellectual property rights. At least one of the YouTube videos I originally bookmarked has already been removed by the copyright owner due to the use of broadcast content without permission.

Zidane headbutts Materazzi - a few seconds of infamy





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