Monday, July 10, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 10th July 2006

For the "Bahrain Tribune"

The tale of Zinedine Zidane’s Football World Cup 2006 (prior to the Final) was told in my London newspaper last Saturday (a day before the final) under the headline “How Zidane rose from the depths to a glorious finale”. Twenty-Four hours is a long time in sport, indeed half a minute is a lifetime if it is a 30 seconds filled with madness which, as we now know, was to be Zidane’s final act on a football pitch. The tension of sport at the highest level gets to even the most sanguine of players and even the calmest succumb when the stakes are just too unbearably high. Sometimes the end of a player’s dreams comes with a whimper, like Wayne Rooney’s petulant little stamp on Ricardo Carvalho which let to his red card in England’s quarter final. But sometimes they come with a mighty bang – and such was the case with Zidane whose attack on Italian defender Marco Materazzi was as premeditated as it was violent. Quite how Zidane will live with himself I have no idea – he certainly can’t deny the facts which a billion television viewers around the world have seen in grisly close up.

I have never managed a sporting team – undoubtedly a relief for any group of players who have escaped the benefits of my tactical nous and my motivating calls to arms. But if I had been in charge of a team at this world cup I would have had one absolutely clear message. It would have been along the lines of “You will be provoked at some time in the ninety minutes. It will happen. And when it does then just walk away. Don’t plead with the Ref to book the miscreant. Don’t return abuse when abused. Remember if someone wrongs you then you then it is up to the officials to deal with it. If they don’t you won’t be able to persuade them to change their minds. And if you retaliate that puts you in the wrong as much as whoever committed the original offence. Two wrongs never make a right!” A simple and rather pompous little homily perhaps but if Rooney had received it and remembered it then he and England might have beaten Portugal. And if Zidane had similarly lodged these truths in his brain then not only would his career not have ended ingloriously but France might have won the World Cup.

As we saw at Monaco when Michael Schumacher tried to cheat his way onto pole position in the Grand Prix even the most respected, admired and talented of sportsmen are vulnerable when glory is within reach. Top cyclists are banned from this year’s Tour de France because of drug suspicions and Track and Field has been besmirched by similar stories for too long. That Marion Jones is now back on the track after all the furore around her alleged drug abuse many will find offensive and that a whole sport (cycling) is riddled with this problem is a disgrace. Perhaps Zidane (naively) thought that the cameras were not on him in Berlin – but more likely like Schumacher, or Jones or all the others who transgress perhaps he thought that he could get away with it. Most likely, though, is the theory that he did not think at all and was operating on a sort of high where there was no reality only illusion. The truth that unbelievable fame and approval was within his grasp was clouding his mind and he suspended the norms of usual behaviour for one fatal moment. To paraphrase C.S.Lewis “…of all the passions, the passion for [success and fame] is most skilful in making a man, who is not yet a very bad man, do very bad things”. Hero to Zero in thirty seconds.

At its most trivial level fame and fortune can make top sportsmen just very silly. All the hype over the celeb footballers and their shopping addicted WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends) is harmless, if vulgar. But the blacker side of this coin is when the same fame can lead a man to think that he is above the law and whether that tendency is truly horrific (like O.J.Simpson) or just grotesquely foolish (Zidane) it does not show human nature at its best. But for every Zidane or Rooney there is a Federer or a Nadal (excellent role models both) – so all is perhaps not lost!