The Materazzi-Zidane incident may turn out to be a storm in a tea cup, but for the moment it is occupying hectares of space in the media around the world.Â The electronic version of the Guardian, for example, has a full page article analysing insults around the globe in a variety of cultures, pointing out that what is heinous in one context can be relatively mild in another.
It is followed by another lengthy piece by a writer from Marseilles who notes that Eric Cantona, he of the kung fu kick at an opposition supporter when playing for Manchester United, and Zidane both hail from that part of France. It is no accident, he says, that they reflect a local tendency to refuse to accept insults and favour instant retribution. Tarring all Marseilliers with the same brush may not be valid. It smacks of the old notion that it was only a hot-blooded latin temperament which explained soccer hooliganism, until the English developed a particularly virulent form in the 1980s. This writer also points out that Zidane delivered a blow to Materazziâ€™s chest, not a full-blooded â€˜Glasgow kissâ€™ which would have broken the Italianâ€™s nose and left him with a permanent reminder to keep his mouth shut.
Everyone agrees that Zidaneâ€™s response was inappropriate on or off the field, but for many it is understandable. Some even believe it can be justified if the insult delivered by Materazzi was intolerable. The argument runs that it is only by responding to such behaviour that it can be sanctioned and outlawed in future. The comparison drawn in Australian terms is with Nicky Winmar and Michael Long standing up against racist insults rather than accepting them as something which stayed on the field as their predecessors had been persuaded to do. Nevertheless it is not clear that resorting to violence on the field is acceptable or even effective as a response.
Futhermore it is bad example to place before impressionable children who like to mimic their heroes. Zidaneâ€™s subsequent apology is clear on this point, even if he still argues that Materazzi had to be stopped.
Letâ€™s assume that there was verbal provocation by Materazzi. The recent word is that what he said was more directed towards Zidaneâ€™s family, particularly his mother. It is also being said that Zidane only learned that day that his mother was very ill. So while there may have been a racist element, the comment may have been even more personal and hence wounding. Does that make the provocation worse?
This raises the general issue of sledging in sport, at which the Australian cricket team are acknowledged masters. As with children everywhere they seek the shock and the destabilising effect by fringing on taboo areas. Our taboos change over the years. Sometimes this can be explained within sport, as has been suggested in the case of attacks on Aboriginal players in Australian Rules, but more often there is a broader societal change, which the sport does little more than reflect, though it may provide the iconic moments (Nicky Winmarâ€™s shirt raising to Collingwood supporters). After all racism was at the heart of the anti-Apartheid protests of a previous generation in Australasia so it is hard to believe all the propaganda from the Australian Football League about its pioneering anti-racism role.
In any competitive endeavour, those taking part will always seek to gain a psychological advantage and it is difficult to see how universal and permanent rules could be devised to prevent that. As soon as one set is drawn up, inventive minds will be pushing at the boundaries and the process will have to be repeated. So I think we simply have to accept that at any point in sport, the boundaries which are tacitly accepted, will always be challenged resulting in incidents which crystallise debate, sometimes leading to changes in rules, sometimes to more tacit agreements not to go down that road and sometimes to a short-lived cause celebre and then back to the status quo. It will be interesting to see whether the Zidane-Materazzi incident has significant consequences.