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Zidane: Hero Falls on Epic Scale

Soccer star's World Cup head-butt like something out of Greek tragedy

Derek Moore, Santa Rosa Press-Democrat

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Like Zeus, he is known around the world by a single name: Zizou.

And after his personal Waterloo on one of the world's biggest stages, French soccer star Zinadine Zidane has taken his place among the tragic heroes of yore.

Even people who loathe soccer can appreciate a story about a man who seemingly has it all only to have that power and status threatened by a single ill-advised act.

It's a story as old as Oedipus, but it never loses the power to shock. Three days after Zidane plunged his bald pate into an Italian player's chest, people throughout the world are still talking about what it all means.

One answer may lie in how heroes are made, and how shockingly quickly they can come undone.

The sports world is replete with examples: Kobe Bryant, O.J. Simpson, Joe Jackson, Kirby Puckett, Pete Rose, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Tonya Harding, Ben Johnson and Mike Tyson among them.

Even someone like Michael Jordan, who was revered for his playing abilities but had problems with gambling and fidelity, can lose hero status.

The list extends far beyond sports. Just think Howard Dean for his yelp, Janet Jackson for her wardrobe malfunction or Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman) for his, well, indiscretion.

We make these people into heroes because we crave immortality, said Jonathan Young, a trained clinical psychologist with the Center for Story and Symbol in Santa Barbara.

In his view, Zidane is not the problem. The rest of us are, for placing too much faith and instilling too much hope into mere mortals.

"Here you're thinking, 'What's wrong with his noodle?'" Young said of Zidane. "There's nothing wrong. It's just that this is a crazy-making moment."

When he wasn't representing his nation on the soccer pitch, Zidane was a "galactico" for the Spanish club Real Madrid, earning $19 million a year. Two movies that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May starred the Frenchman.

One was modestly called "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait." The other was "The Dream Team."

And now to millions, he's that guy at the center of "L'Affair Headbutt." Subtitled: "D'Oh!"

"Sometimes a god gets mad, and he strikes," said Frenchman Jean-Marie Maureze, operations manager for Dominus Winery in Yountville.

Soccer is given to dramatic flair. Some don't blame Zidane at all for his behavior, but the Italians for their perceived acting on the soccer pitch. Marco Materazzi, the Italian player who was on the receiving end of Zidane's anger, admitted that he taunted the French star, but he adamantly denied published reports that he called Zidane, who is of Algerian descent, an "Arab terrorist."

Zidane's life mirrors the mythology bestowed on the up-from-the-bootstraps tale. He was born poor in Marseille, and once was a training assistant for a soccer club in Cannes, site of his triumphant film debut this year.

Young, who worked with renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell, said Zidane is like a figure from Greek tragedy.

He said the Greeks warned of the dangers of hubris, of taking on properties that were reserved for the gods. When the inevitable fall came, it happened at the moment of glory.

"It will be when we're really up there - and there's no bigger thing than the World Cup," Young said. "We go crazy with the importance of the moment."

But Mark Griffith, a professor of Greek literature at UC Berkeley, said he does not believe Zidane was caught up in his own ego when he struck the opposing Italian player.

France World Cup Soccer Team, 2006

France World Cup Soccer Team, 2006

Griffith, who studies soccer and is an admirer of Zidane, said the French player more resembles the mythical Oedipus: a decent, caring person who makes a mistake not out of maliciousness, but out of frailty.

In the case of Oedipus, that mistake was killing his father and sleeping with his mother.

"Just when you think someone has got it totally made, like Oedipus ... you find out this horrible thing about him and it's a total devastation," Griffith said. "It's not that you decide he was actually wicked. He was just incredibly unlucky."

The less intellectually minded might attribute Zidane's behavior to more mundane causes, like the fact he has a documented temper and was once thrown out of a game for stomping on an opposing player.

Still, no one anticipated his violent act Sunday, coming as it did on the world's biggest stage when he seemingly had everything he could ever want.

The final chapter in Zidane's storied career has yet to be written, but there are signs that people are ready to forgive him his sins. Despite the headbutt, Zidane was voted the World Cup's most valuable player. And his sponsors say they won't cut him loose.

"More than 70 percent of the French understand," Maureze said. "Nobody will really talk about what happened."

©Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Further thoughts When Derek Moore interviewed me for this article, we discussed several topics that did not make it into the piece. One thing I recounted was an ancient tradition that pertained to the incident.

When a Roman general returned from a victory, he was given a parade in which he was dressed like a god. A slave walked behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispered in his ear a humbling reminder, "all earthly glory is fleeting." We treat celebrities like virtual divinities, but seem to have forgotten the emphasis on staying grounded.

I was on CBS 48 Hours awhile back talking about the psychology of celebrity. Fame changes quickly, like fashion. For a brief moment, player and fan enter an enchantment. During this magical moment, the celebrity can lose their balance. Sometimes, it is as if they are virtually overtaken by a powerful situation.

Of course, any of us can lose perspective when under pressure. An experience can be quite positive and still intensely stressful. Zidane's error reminds us that achievement is a risky terrain.
-- Jonathan

Copyright ©2006 Santa Rosa Press-Democrat