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MONACO AND LONDON, 6 APRIL 2004
The Tonsured Not Always Triumphant
Dare we give away too much and call this Black Tuesday? With both Arsenal and Real Madrid unexpectedly exiting the
Click for film website
Zidane and Guti embrace on Tuesday. The Real Madrid advantage was short-lived. (AP photo)
Champions League at the same hour, we had to staunch the saliva that was flowing in anticipation of a dream semifinal between the Gunners and los galácticos. Our zest for Zidane had been piqued on the weekend in the essay by Andrew Hussey ("ZZ Top," The Observer, 4 April), who covered some familiar ground by tracing Zidane's Algerian heritage and cultural significance. The University of Wales scholar, whose specialty is French anarchism, was most engaging, however, in restaging his encounter with Zidane at the Real Madrid training ground off the Paseo de la Castellana. David Beckham arrives in "an absurdly huge four-wheel drive" and attracts an entourage. Not so for Zidane.

The first thing I notice about Zidane is that for a player of such commanding elegance on the field, he is, in person, rather awkward, even gawky. He even sits delicately, like a girl, legs together, hands folded in his lap. My second thought is that he probably is genuinely shy.

A number of cultural scholars and poets have taken their stabs at Zidane, enough that "Zidane lit" is becoming almost a subgenre. See also the New York Times Magazine profile from 1999 (John Vinocur, "Just a Soccer Star, After All," 14 March 1999), where Zidane's Berber heritage and talismanic status for a "new France" were well exegeted, and Mounsi's 20-page prose poem ("Zizou Zidane—The World's Best Player," in Le Foot: The Legends of French Football, ed. Christov Rühn [London: Abacus, 2000], 94–113): "In the stands, on the terraces, everywhere the crowd yells this exclamation: / 'Zizou! Zizou!' / The diminutive makes a circuit of the stadium. / Your comrades clasp you to them. /You kiss Emmanuel Petit." | back to top

MADRID, 11 MARCH 2004
The Spiral of Violence: Football's Role
Coordinated bombings that struck the Spanish capital's commuter railways during this morning's rush hour—bombings that killed 190 and injured more than 1,400—again raise the place of sport in easing the pain from such tragedies. In another

Members of Real Madrid form a circle during training on Thursday. Flags at the Santiago Bernabéu were also lowered to half-mast. See the story on Real Madrid's website.
view, the loss of life demonstrates the triviality of games; in a familiar ritual, a major sporting institution had to justify continuing its sporting calendar with the customary moments of silence and black armbands. Such was the position of UEFA, which quickly decided to stage UEFA Cup fixtures although they involved four Spanish sides ("UEFA Cup Matches Go Ahead as Scheduled," UEFA.com; link opens PDF file; see also Phil Ball, "Football at Half-Mast," ESPNSoccernet.com, 16 March). Of course, were violent acts allowed to preempt sports on every occasion, games would never be played. By coincidence, Jason Burke recently had written in the Observer about a phenomenon—observed primarily among males, who are the ones making wars, as well—in which extreme conflict seems paired with the youthful, optimistic impulse to play ("A Letter from . . . the War Zone," 7 March).

In five or more years of covering wars I have ended up sitting on a variety of [football] terraces, in some of the most blighted parts of the world, all of which seem to conjure traumatic childhood memories of the South Bank at Upton Park in its pre-seating days. I remember filing into the stadium in Freetown, Sierra Leone, shortly after British forces had beaten back a rebel offensive. There I watched the Royal Marines, who had spent most of the past three months on a ship, soundly beaten by a makeshift local side that featured, wearing trainers, half a dozen internationals.

Another curious pairing between sport and self-destruction includes the prominence given the Greek Olympics in ancient times (John Noble Wilford, "When the Games Began: Olympic Archaeology," New York Times, 9 March), for which "nothing was allowed to stand in the way. When it was time for the games, armies of rival cities usually laid down their weapons in a 'sacred truce.' In 480 B.C., while the Persians were torching Athens, there was no stopping the foremost games at Olympia." Sports as diplomacy is often cited as a positive, as in the rapprochement between India and Pakistan, in which cricket is doing its part in a much-anticipated series between the two countries (Scott Baldauf, "Is It Peace or War? India and Pakistan Back at Cricket," Christian Science Monitor, 9 March). Pushpesh Pant, professor of diplomacy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says the series includes "a bit of religion, with the hero worship of the players. It's a bit of politics, with two great rival nations seeing who is the better. It's a bit of a lottery, so that with a little talent, even a poor street worker might be able to break away from poverty."

Unclear is where these linkings leave us. As for the bombings in Spain, the perpetrators have been variously identified as the Basque separatist group ETA (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning "Basque Homeland and Freedom"), or al Qaeda, or a splinter group. Football has, in part—as Ball has recounted ("Basque Ups and Downs," ESPNSoccernet.com, 22 October 2002)—helped fuel the notion of Basque distinctiveness. Yet there were thousands in Bilbao earlier today, silently standing in protest of the morning's killings. It appears that people have the capacity to compartmentalize sport as a realm of fancy and the carnivalesque, and to turn to it when the urge strikes to feel young, or to state, subtly, that reality could be much nicer.

  • Antibes, Cote d'Azur, France | 14 December 2003 . . . Mickael Madar, Mickael Madar, called "Big Mouth"the erstwhile forward for Everton, Deportivo de La Coruña and the French national side, has opened a school designed for Jewish players. "I reckon there are too few Jews playing football," Madar tells Ben Lyttleton, writing for the Scotsman, "and yet we are just as good as anyone else. That's why I set up my soccer school—with kosher food available. But the school is open to everyone, by the way." Madar also has salty, and unquotable, views on his playing career (link is for adults only). . . . In the same piece, Lyttleton mentions the sad fate of deposed Real Madrid manager Vicente del Bosque, who was fired after his side won La Liga to conclude the 2002–03 campaign. "When they told me I was past it and not modern enough, it hurt. I'm not ashamed to say that when I thought of my 35 years spent at the club, I cried. . . . I'm looking for a job. I want to coach again, be it in Spain or abroad. Four months without working is too much rest. I'd very much like to get an offer, but honestly I've had nothing."
  • Madrid | 19 September 2003 . . . Has it been more than a month since we last mentioned Real Madrid? We'll try to fill that void by linking to Simon Kuper's Financial Times column, in which he raves about los merengues. They are, according to Kuper, playing the football of our imaginations, "the football we all had in our heads"; they might even be providing us "glimpses of a higher beauty." The players are free, happy, not needing stern oversight:
  • You don't scream at Zinedine Zidane for wandering across the park, because Zidane probably knows what he is doing. You don't tell Roberto Carlos to mark his man. So the galacticos play their own game, like the mythical children on the sandlots of long ago who litter the essays of Jorge Valdano, Real's sporting director. Zidane is free to dribble as if he were still a 13-year-old on Marseille's Place Tartane. | back to top