Thursday, July 13, 2006

Zidane: The Face-Saving Ethic Strikes Back

Zidane Head Butt

The last few weeks were surprisingly momentous for me and millions of my French compatriots. The success of ‘Les Bleus’, the national soccer team of France, was not expected at the beginning of the World Cup over a month ago. Consisting of a slew of relatively old players and a coach who consults his astrologer regularly, this year’s team achieved results that few would have believed possible after its lackluster performance in the preliminary group matches. I am by no means much of a soccer buff, as I only pay attention to the sport every four years for the World Cup, usually out of some inexplicable duty to one of my two native countries (the other being the US, of course). And still I was overjoyed by the championship victory of ‘Les Bleus’ in 1998 over the Brazilian favorites. Watching this year’s repeat of that match in the quarterfinals, I was convinced that France had finally rediscovered within them the spark that had spurred them to winning eight years ago.

Naturally I and many Frenchmen were disappointed by France’s loss in the final to Italy. So close, and yet so unjustly determined by penalty kicks. Since I was eating lunch with my family while watching the game from the corner of my eye, I had not noticed what the French captain Zinedine Zidane had done to merit his red flag. I only saw him talking to the referee after the red card had been issued and then strutting off the field looking quite dejected. Only after the match was I able to see the video footage online further clarifying his head-butting of an Italian player. Zidane’s display of aggression made all of us wonder what the reasons were for this kind of behavior, but it had already become the consensus among most in the French press that the act was reprehensible regardless of what provoked it, and that it had probably turned the tide against the French in the crucial final minutes of the championship match.

As the story on what was said between the two players unfolded, it was clear that offensive language and taunts were common in soccer. Zidane’s outburst was still surprising (not having paid attention to instances of his violent behavior throughout his carreer—remember I’m not much of a soccer fan) and to anyone who thought that the shear gravity of being part of the World Cup finals match would be enough to prevent any player to willfully eject himself from the game, few could imagine any kind of plausible explanation. It was clear that for all of Zidane’s impressive accomplishments in soccer, certain other issues were more important that could only be resolved violently.

As the past week progressed, the Zidane and his Italian adversary Materazzi offered sparse explanations of why events turned out the way they did. In an interview of French television, Zidane revealed that Materazzi had said some nasty things about his mother and sister and to not fight back against such insults would only condone these harsh insults. Zidane’s logic seems puzzling to me and others at first, since it assumed that a civilized response to such verbal provocations would be to ignore it and focusing on the more important task of finishing by winning the match. Materazzi’s behavior was likely an intended effort to rid the star player from his leadership role on the French team by exploiting Zidane’s tendency to overreact. Such tactics are quite underhanded on the part of some Italian players, but a truly great player would easily evade any opponent’s provocations.

And still, Zidane’s head-butt reminded me how the ethics of saving face can easily undermine larger goals of a community. Defending the honor of his family is more important than what over sixty million Frenchmen would otherwise like, such as keeping cool and focused, winning high-stakes matches. Such thinking is indicative of a pre-modern ethic and common throughout most Eastern cultures (Zidane is of Algerian birth) from honor killings of women to pressures in Asian families for their offspring to excel in selected professions. Face-saving has been largely supplanted in the West, probably the result of the emerging influence of individualism and humanism beginning in the Renaissance. Ideals would no longer worth being defended if there was no rational basis that could enhance individuals. Behavior would now be directed for productive ends, with individuals weighing on how to get the most out one’s own efforts as wells as from the efforts of others. Participating collectively in a task would no longer be a means toward maintaining long-standing social ties nor as fulfilling an obligation based on family honor and reputation; rather, the new Western model advocated collective action as the most practical means of accomplishing tangible goals.

Conflicts under this more modern and mechanistic mentality must be borne out of practical desires. Instances where two individuals are practically better off resolving a conflict than in working together are rare, because there is usually little rational basis for them. Yet a person acting in the name of preserving his family’s honor does not evaluate success in pragmatic or even utilitarian terms. Success relies on whether face-saving virtues have been upheld and familial shame averted.

Zidane accomplished the latter objectives, but his violent act left few French soccer fans to wonder how he was so willing to disregard the hopes and aspirations of millions just to settle a non-productive resolution.

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