Zidane a victim of racism? Maybe – but not so fast

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Having written a column before the World Cup worrying that racism, in the form of ugly taunts and gestures (and worse) from fans, would mar the competition, and then having seen those fears largely unfulfilled, Dave Zirin, writing at Alternet, seeks to salvage his thesis on the strength of speculation re: l’affaire Zidane. He argues that if, as has been reported, the lavishly tattooed Italian defender Marco Materazzi called Zinedine Zidane, a Muslim of Algerian descent, “a dirty terrorist”–which Materazzi denies–well, then, Italy should hand back the cup.

This makes for an impassioned column, no doubt, but there’s a problem. Armies of lip readers (“international lip readers,” no less) have been marshaled to decipher the insult leveled at Zidane, and they’ve come up with a bewildering array of suggestions. Some say Materazzi wished for Zidane and his family an ugly death; others that he insulted the French player’s sister; and still others that he told “the balding playmaker” to go fuck himself. I know enough Italian to be reasonably confident these phrases aren’t easily confused–so…I don’t think much of international lip readers.

Undeterred by the speculative (and agenda-advancing?) quality of the crap flying around about the incident, Zirin takes his opening. (Not a huge deal, but he seems to think Zidane’s nickname is Zissou; it’s actually Zizou.)

But then in the final act, at the moment of most exquisite tension, it seems racism may have actually emerged from the shadows. I, for one, am damn glad that when it did, it ran smack into Zissou’s beautiful head.

We don’t know with iron certainty what Materazzi said, but if it turns out to be more of the anti-Black, anti-Muslim, garbage that has infected soccer like a virus, the Italian team should forfeit the cup. They should voluntarily give the greatest trophy of them all back to FIFA as a statement that some things in this world are more important than sports. Racism will be the death of soccer if things don’t change. Italy can set the sport back on course, with one simple, stunning gesture. Give the damn thing back.

Racism is a big problem in soccer, no question. But maybe we could hold off on these kinds of stirring summons until the evidence is in, especially when they involve demonizing a guy, Materazzi, who might be guilty of nothing more than standard-variety trash talking, and fanning an already incendiary debate that touches on the most sensitive civilizational and religious divide of our times.

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