King Kaufman's Sports Daily

French captain Zidane apologizes for his head butt but says it's the provoker who should be punished. He's wrong.

Published July 13, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

French national team captain Zinedine Zidane did a TV interview Wednesday and apologized for head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final, an act that drew a red card during extra time and left France without one of the world's great shooters during a penalty-kick shootout.

But Zidane also said he doesn't regret his actions because Materazzi insulted him, and he thinks Materazzi should be punished. "He had no reason to say what he said," news reports quoted Zidane saying. "It's always the reaction that is sanctioned and not the provoker."

He has a point about the reaction being sanctioned and not the one who provoked that reaction. Everybody who has ever been sent to his or her room for finally reacting to a sibling's pestering knows about that little law enforcement problem.

But it's right to punish the reaction rather than the provocation, or at least to punish it more harshly. It doesn't seem fair, especially if you're a person who has ever been provoked. But it's the only approach that makes sense.

Punishing the reaction more harshly than the provocation inevitably leads to more provocation. That's bad. But it's better than the alternative, punishing the provocation more harshly than the reaction, which would lead to more reaction.

It's generally agreed that Materazzi said something really terrible to Zidane, but there's been no end to speculation and debate over what he actually said. Various theories have Materazzi using anti-Muslim slurs or calling him an Arab terrorist. Zidane is the son of Algerian immigrants.

Materazzi, who said, "Zidane has always been my biggest idol," denied all of the above, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.

"I did not say anything to him concerning racism, religion or politics," Materazzi said. "I didn't say anything about his mother either. I lost my mother when I was 15 years old and still now nothing moves me more than talking about her. Naturally, I did not know that his [mother] was in hospital and I want to send her my best wishes."

Sounds like he said something about Zidane's mother, doesn't it?

My theory has been that he said, "Now go home and get your fuckin' shine box." Because once I saw someone say that to a guy and the guy went nuts.

FIFA, the sport's international governing body, has announced an investigation into the matter that could result in Zidane being stripped of the Golden Ball award, given to the World Cup's best player, and also to sanctions against Materazzi.

Zidane has been invited to submit a written statement by Tuesday, with Materazzi able to respond before the two appear in person before a disciplinary committee in Zurich, Switzerland, on July 20.

Since Zidane has already announced his retirement from international soccer, a ban won't affect him, so he may get his wish that Materazzi, the alleged provoker, get the greater sanction. But he, and we, should be careful what he wishes for.

Because while we can all empathize with Zidane's sentiment that it's unfair for the retaliation to be punished but not the provocation, the first problem, just as it was for Mom or Dad when you were smacking your little brother upside his annoying head, is one of enforcement. How are officials supposed to know about the provocation?

It's hard enough to catch the big stuff. Zidane's massive head butt to Materazzi's chest was an obvious red-card foul when it was shown on TV replays, but in the stadium, it was easy to miss. Since it happened away from the ball, it looked to most of the crowd like just another soccer player writhing around on the grass. Nothing to get too excited about.

The referee would have missed it if he hadn't consulted with one of his assistants, who had apparently seen the replay on one of the stadium's giant video screens. We're talking about a -- wham! -- solid head butt to the chest in wide-open space. Almost missed.

And now this enforcement system is supposed to know that, just before the broad-daylight head butt to the chest that it missed, the guy who got head-butted said, "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" as opposed to "Zenadine, my friend, you have always been my hero and I'm sorry about your mother being sick."

I don't think so.

So that leads to the second, way bigger, problem. Soccer has enough of an issue with players diving and pretending to be injured in an effort to draw fouls. Punishing provocations would lead to more, not less, violence of the type Zidane practiced Sunday.

It's one thing to taunt and insult a great player, hoping he'll snap, retaliate violently and get himself tossed. Even if you get tossed with him, it's probably a win for your team, as long as you're the lesser of the two players. But at least the person being insulted is in control of the situation. He can choose not to react.

Now picture those two going at it in a world in which the provoker is punished at least as harshly as the retaliator. The provoker's job, to get the star tossed, just got a lot easier, didn't it? All he has to do is become the retaliator.

So he hauls off and whacks the star, then runs to the referee. "He called my mother and sister empty-headed animal food trough wipers!"

If you think soccer players are faking whiners now, lying motionless on the pitch after purely theoretical collisions, then miraculously recovering a few moments later, you'll love the crackdown on provokers.

If FIFA can find some real evidence that Materazzi said something racist or anti-Muslim and wants to sanction him somehow, fine. There's no greater stain on soccer these days than the racist chanting and taunting that haunts the game in Europe. Though for what it's worth I think players should be able to insult each other's mothers and sisters to their hearts' content.

And if the insulted player wants to settle things, fine. Let him do it later on, out back of the nightclub or something. It's between him, his rival and the police.

But if he retaliates during a game, he should be punished, and harshly. Part of Zidane's job was to not retaliate to the kinds of insults and taunts that go with being a great player. He'd failed at that job before, which is one reason the taunting and insults continued.

The way to fight provocation isn't to call for punishment of provokers. It's to keep from letting them win by retaliating.

Zidane says he doesn't have any regrets. He should.

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