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The Tragedy of Zidane

Those who the gods may destroy, they grant their wishes. Zinedine Zidane may be pondering that bit of ancient Greek wisdom today. Having announced that he would end his professional career with the World Cup, Zidane had his wish fulfilled. After France barely survived the tournament’s first round, Zidane performed at the top of his game and led the team to the brink of a second World Cup championship. But instead of finishing his career in triumph, or at least with an ovation, he was ejected from the final for head-butting an Italian player. There have been few such tragic moments in football history.

Whatever the provocation that led to Zidane’s behavior (probably a racial comment), his violent act, seen around the world, has tarnished his image. The sad paradox is that while the world had been learning of and celebrating his legendary kindness as a person, he will now be distinguished for all time by an act of aggression.

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Indeed, Zidane’s status as an emblematic champion of the world’s most universal and popular sport does not fully explain why people have been so obsessed with him. His human qualities, as much as his talent and technical feats on the field, counted equally in establishing his popular acclaim.

Football has always been this way. For Argentineans, the diminutive Diego Maradona represented the revenge of the weak and the deprived. As a result, his countrymen excused his frequent bad behavior time and again. Similarly, Pelé became the symbol of a harmonious, inter-racial Brazil.

Zidane offered neither of these romantic images. Moreover, after his career is over, he is unlikely to become a manager of his sport like Jean-Claude Killy, the former Alpine skier who was co-president of the 1992 winter Olympics, or his fellow football legend Michel Platini, who helped coordinate the 1998 World Cup. After all, Zidane, arguably the world’s best football player, left with a gesture that has no place in any game.

Nevertheless, Zidane will remain a global icon, owing to his profoundly human character and his extreme simplicity. Here is a man who is known in the most hidden corners of the planet, yet he retained the presence and discretion of a silent next-door neighbor. At a moment when integration is being debated in France, Zidane embodied the ideal of success through talent and hard work – while never betraying himself or his Algerian origins.

Moreover, Zidane incarnated values that seem threatened nowadays, but to which ordinary people remain attached: loyalty to family, diligence, and cooperation. Here is a man who was not only a world champion, but also a model son and father. The almost timid way in which, after France’s victory over Spain, he expressed his love for his mother touched viewers around the world.

To understand Zidane’s popularity, one need only set his modesty and attention to others against the arrogance and indifference that characterize the behavior of so many other celebrities, including football players. At a time when, in France as in the rest of the world, the chasm between the elite and ordinary people has never been so wide, when the smugness of the affluent has never been so cruelly felt by the less fortunate, Zidane, a son of despised immigrants, became an international star, and yet preserved the simplicity of his origins.

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For this, Zidane was not only admired, but also respected. His success was never to the detriment of others. On the contrary, he is active in causes such as helping sick children. It is obvious that he could one day become a tremendous ambassador of peace, or for children, working with the United Nations or another international organization.

But now the hero has fallen. Zidane was not Superman, but a human being. In a single instant of unfathomable fury, his moment of glory was transformed into one of madness and a curse. His tragedy is ultimately a personal one. Nevertheless, it would be a great loss – extending far beyond the world of football – if Zidane’s disgraceful exit as a player comes to define his legacy as a man.