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Friday, July 21, 2006

A Tale of Two Verdicts: Zidane and the Sports Guy

OK, so the World Cup is over. That doesn't mean Applejack won't throw out a few soccer nuggets from time to time. There were two important decisions in the world of soccer that deserve mention...

FIFA has announced a three-game ban and a fine for, ahem, retired French legend Zinedine Zidane due to his infamous headbutt of Marco Materazzi. Zizou--whom French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy prudently described as a 'man of providence, he is a saviour, he is a titan, a valiant knight, a blue redeeming angel dressed in white'--has offered to spend time with children on behalf of FIFA to serve out his punishment. Very well. What's extraordinary to me is that headbutt victim Materazzi has also been served with a suspension (two matches) and fine. FIFA stated that Materazzi was disciplined for "repeatedly provoking Zidane." Are you serious?
Think about this for a moment. Materazzi has a reputation for being difficult, and I'm sure he said something terrible about Zidane's sister or whatever it was. He is guilty of a lack of sportsmanship and human decency. But the problem isn't just that this type of chatter is common in soccer (and all sports), but that there are no rules against this conduct--or precedent to punish it--as long as racism is not involved. But we can now take that off the table: "Both players stressed that Materazzi's comments had been defamatory but not of a racist nature," FIFA said in a statement.
FIFA has now opened a can of worms leading straight to the theatre of the absurd. Players can act out in violence against opponents, claim their boorish behavior was due to verbal provocation, and call for the provocateur to be punished. Does FIFA want to take on the level of player surveillance and policing required to enforce rules against meanspiritedness? If so, get started and be consistent.
No worries, I believe this was a one-off. FIFA knows they can't unleash a torrent of discipline for on-field trash talk. Just a case of there being one standard for Zidane (who's been known to exchange words a few times himself) and another standard for the Materazzis of the world. Just imagine if the tables were turned. Would Zidane have gotten a suspension for provoking a Materazzi headbutt by saying mean things that no official heard in person? Right.

Other (even stronger) responses:
Bobby McMahon, Fox Soccer Channel: We are regressing to the school playground. Forget an additional referee, perhaps FIFA should opt for monitors who can tell the referee if any of the players say bad words! What's the line between defamatory comments and gamesmanship?
...There were no racists comments from Materazzi but he gets two games for defamatory comments and being on the receiving end of an assault. Interesting logic from FIFA for sure.

Paul Doyle, The Guardian: Indeed, such is Zidane's mystique that he even managed to convince the French Football Federation to contradict themselves and speak to Fifa in his defence. This is the same FFF that last year appealed against one of its own disciplinary committee's decisions after Fabien Barthez, who had spat on a referee during a friendly, was dealt with leniently after explaining he was provoked. The FFF insisted the goalkeeper serve at least a six-month ban. The word 'hypocrisy' must be featuring heavily in Barthez's conversations tonight.
As for Fifa, now that they've been hoodwinked into declaring that swearing at someone is only marginally less objectionable than physically assaulting them and should be punished even if the referee doesn't hear it, how does the world governing body propose to eradicate harsh language? By making every player wear a microphone during matches and employing a squadron of eavesdroppers to monitor their utterances? If so, which jibes merit a yellow card and which deserve red? For how many games will a player be suspended for insulting an opponent's sister as opposed to, say, his cousin?
Conniving Zidane handed Fifa a jagged can-opener, and the clowns have released the worms.

You must read this. Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy, is a very popular sportswriter for ESPN whose humor, fanlike musings, and pop culture references draw tons of readers. He got into the World Cup and decided to get into European soccer, particularly the English Premier League. He announced that he wanted to pick a team and solicited thousands of emails for fans to make their case why he should embrace their team. Yesterday he wrote a hilarious column announcing his decision.
Personally, I am an Arsenal fan and would have loved him to choose the Gunners for their entertaining style, storied history, penchant for developing young talent, and their ability (for now) to win despite spending less than giants such as Chelsea and Manchester United. But I truly thought he would pick Liverpool b/c of many Red Sox parallels--Simmons is a massive Sox fan. Stunningly, he picked none of the aforementioned Big 4. He picked Arsenal's archrival Tottenham. WHAAAAAAAATTT?!?! Nevertheless, he plans to write regularly and actually attend matches. Should be fun to watch, and I for one think it's pretty interesting that perhaps the most widely read sportswriter in the country is getting into soccer.

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