WITH ON-FIELD INSULTS, IT’S ALL IN THE HEAD

By now you know about “the head-butt that shook the world.” It happened last Sunday, when French soccer star Zinedine Zidane plowed his noggin into the chest of an Italian opponent.

This would be minor news any other time. Just another athlete losing his temper. Except this head-butt came in the overtime of the World Cup championship game, an event that comes once every four years and is watched by more than a billion people.

And it may have cost France the title.

What could Zidane have possibly been thinking, people asked? How could he lose his cool at such a critical moment and get thrown out of the game (which France eventually lost in a penalty kick shootout)?

Well, a few days ago, we found out. Sort of. An apologetic but unregretful Zidane revealed, in a French TV interview, that what the Italian player said was so awful, “I would rather have taken a punch in the jaw than have heard that.”

Naturally, everyone wants to know the words. Some, early on, said the comments were racial in nature. (Zidane is of Algerian descent.) Some claimed the Italian called Zidane “a terrorist.” Zidane would confirm only that the remarks were about his mother and sister.

“They were very harsh words,” Zidane told the TV interviewer. “You hear them once and you try to move away. But then you hear them twice and then a third time. … I am a man and some words are harder to hear than actions.”

It’s all about family, right?

In the immediate aftermath, most people sided against Zidane. But as the days passed, I noticed a shift. With the suggestion that the Italian’s insult was about his mother, some seem to forgive the Frenchman, to begrudgingly admire a guy who would throw it all away to defend the family name.

According to London’s Daily Mirror newspaper, Zidane’s mother feels that way. She said: “I praise my son for defending his family’s honor.

“No one should be subjected to such foul insults on or off the football pitch and I don’t care if it was a World Cup final. . . .

“Some things are bigger than football.”

Is it true? Are some things bigger than football – or baseball, basketball or hockey? At first blush, you say, come on. Trash-talking is a part of sports. You shrug it off. You don’t let it unnerve you.

But this seems to be unique to the playing fields. For example, say you’re in a business meeting with a client, and he suddenly insults your family or your race. Are you going to “shrug it off” and make the deal anyhow? Or are you going to storm out?

Let’s say you’re in a butcher shop, about to buy a few steaks. And the butcher makes a crack about your heritage or your family’s dignity. Are you going to carry on, or are you going to throw the meat at his head and never go back again?

How will he be remembered?

It’s a sign of the times when people say that trash talk, words such as “whore” and “terrorist,” and numerous expletives are simply “part of the game.” Maybe they are. But since when did that become OK?

When did “normal” sports behavior include a monologue of curse words and insults?

Yes, I also feel that whatever was said, Zidane had too much riding on that moment to lose his cool. You always could yell something back. Head-butting in the chest isn’t exactly quid pro quo.

But I also agree when Zidane said on TV: “My action was inexcusable, but the real culprit is the one who provoked it.” The Italian, Marco Materazzi, has yet to receive even a slap on the wrist. He has acknowledged insulting Zidane, although he told an Italian newspaper, “I didn’t say anything to him about racism, religion or politics. I didn’t talk about his mother, either.”

Hmm. What’s left?

Years from now, Zidane may be remembered as an athlete whose temper cost him perhaps the biggest moment of his career. Or he may be remembered as the guy who finally said, “Enough.”

Either way, his mother’s statement that “some things are bigger than football” is a pretty interesting thought. It’s even more interesting that, in today’s sports world, her sentence, not whatever Materazzi said, is considered the radical statement.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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