To the French, Zidane still a hero, if no longer a 'god'

Welcome home, Zizou. All is forgiven.

After a rollercoaster week that saw France's premier soccer star alternately thrill, shock, and mystify a sports-crazed nation, Zinedine Zidane is back in the good graces of most French fans.

Despite France's loss to Italy in the World Cup final Sunday and his ambiguous apology for the head butt that got him ejected from the final match of his career, Mr. Zidane – known affectionately as Zizou – seems to have regained his status as a French hero.

No longer a superhero, to be sure, but a heroic common man.

"He's not a god, but simply a hero who has not always handled very well his basic internal conflict, which is his sensitivity to injustice," sports psychologist Makis Chamalidis told the sports daily L'Equipe this week.

Nevertheless, France has long revered the sphinxlike Zidane, a famously reticent man known for his elegant footwork on the field.

He has been called "a planetary icon," "the greatest footballer of his generation," and "a living example for young people." The fact that he grew up in the tough alleys of Marseilles, the son of Berber immigrants from Algeria, only added to his patina as a man who not only prevailed over opponents on the playing field but also over racism in French daily life.

Now, after scandalizing sports fans with his ignominious head butt, he seems to have successfully recast himself once again, this time as a loyal son ostensibly defending his mother's honor.

In the 110th minute of Sunday's nail-biting final between France and Italy, Italian midfielder Marco Materazzi – who had matched Zidane's early goal to tie the game 1-1 – tugged at Zidane's shirt.

There was an exchange of muttered comments. The two separated, Zidane trotted in front of the Italian and suddenly turned back, lowered his shaved head and rammed it into Mr. Materazzi's chest, knocking him on his back.

Zidane, team captain and minutes from the close of a glorious career, was thrown out. In the end, Italy won on penalty kicks, 5-3. From then on, no one has been able to stop talking about Zizou.

A reggae-like song about the head butt has become an instant Internet hit. Sportswriters and the French sports minister called his action odious, shameful, unsportsmanlike, and petulant. Yet rumors abounded that something unsupportable had been said. Lip-readers were employed by various news organizations and concluded that the Italian had used racial epithets or slurs against Zidane's mother and sister. The right-wing Italian Senate president fueled speculation by saying the French team "sacrificed its identity by selecting blacks, Islamists, and communists."

Finally, on Wednesday night, Zidane appeared on national television.

Yes, the soccer star said, Materazzi had used terrible language, insulting his mother and his sister. No, Zidane said, he would not repeat the exact words. All he would say was that he was profoundly, deeply hurt.

"I would rather have taken a punch in the face" than hear such insults, he said.

Zidane, dressed in a T-shirt with a khaki Army surplus coat draped over his shoulders, said repeatedly that he apologized to the children and teachers of the world who saw his head butt.

He called his act "unforgivable" but called for sanctions as well against "the true culprit" who had insulted his family.

Then, mixing his message even further, he declared that he regretted nothing. To have refrained from reacting would have implied that the Italian was right to utter the insults, he said.

"I take responsibility for the good and the bad," he said. "Now another life begins. I'll be less watched, less observed. I am going to try to devote myself to my children and my family. I intend to return to Algeria to rediscover my roots, the land of my parents."

With those words, he reminded his audience of how far he had come. For Mr. Zidane has long been the prime example of a "beur," as French people of North African descent are commonly called, who crossed over into mainstream celebrity status by way of professional sports. He was a source of pride in immigrant neighborhoods, a case in point for French politicians who insisted on the openness of French society and a bane to those on the xenophobic far-right who complained France was losing its white European identity.

In the final score, Zidane became for some the embodiment of a quality admired in more than a few French circles: the willingness to sacrifice victory for pride.

"I see, thanks to Zidane, the victory of a certain national spirit," wrote François Sureau, a French philosopher, in the newspaper Le Figaro, on Thursday. Zidane, he said, "has given us back our beautiful reputation for insolence."

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