Head Butt, But....

Zidane’s head butting of the Italian player Materazzi has provoked considerable controversy.  One thing is certain, Zidane deserved the sanction of being red carded, no matter how insulting were Materazzi’s remarks.  However, the tongue is mightier than the sword and, certainly, the head butt, and Meterazzi’s verbal violence also deserved a red card.  It is here where injustice often lurks, because this was not the case of a perpetrator and a victim; this was a case of two perpetrators, and the most violent of them was not sanctioned!  Ironically, the French team was sanctioned, because they now had to play with ten players and the French and non-partisan spectators and the one billion T.V. viewers were also sanctioned by having to look at an unequal contest.  It would appear to me when an individual player is physically or verbally violent that strong sanctions need to be applied to the perpetrator, but not to the team or to the spectators.  It reminds me of school that when one student in a class is disruptive, very often the whole class suffers, which is an unjust response.  I believe when a player is put off the pitch then a replacement player should be sent on.  In terms of the player who perpetrated the verbal or physical violence, the sanction needs to fit the emotional or physical threat posed.  The purpose of a sanction is to safeguard and restore the violated right of the person who was at the receiving end of the violation.  In Zidane’s case, there were two perpetrators who posed a threat to each other.  Each needed safeguarding from the other, but, also, the billion spectators need to be strong in their outrage that this is not what they are paying to see or want to see.

It could be argued that it is not possible for referees to police the mouths of players.  But what is possible is that the culture be created in sport that supports, encourages and values the reporting of outrageous verbal taunting and insulting.  Also, referees need to sanction the foul-mouthing they themselves encounter.  It was very clear in the World Cup match that Zidane’s undisciplined response was a case of ‘no smoke without fire.’  The tragedy was that the referee and his assistants did not look for the fire.

What has not emerged in the media response to the whole sad incident is the responsibility of the national or club teams to provide training for players in the controlling of verbal and physical aggression.  Playing in a World Cup and, more especially, in the final, brings major pressure on players and, if they carry considerable personal emotional baggage as well, then they can become a lethal verbal or physical weapon on the playing field.  Witness to this was Wayne Rooney’s ‘putting the boot in’ and the ‘battle at Nuremburg’ between Portugal and Holland.  It is a responsibility of those who manage players to spot their vulnerability and their potential to be a threat to the wellbeing of others, including opposing team members.  It is an act of neglect of players who have a propensity to be emotionally or physically violent to allow them out on pitches without means of understanding and controlling their potential to be verbally or physically hostile.  It is the case that ninety per cent of violence is perpetrated by males, and there is an urgency to resolve this issue, starting with male children.  All sports and community clubs, schools and sports organisations need to provide opportunities for their young (and older) members to act respectfully, responsibly and maturely when playing games.  This does not mean ‘turning the other cheek’ in the face of provocation from another, but it does mean taking the appropriate channels set down by the clubs to report any verbal or physical violation.  Two wrongs never make a right, but a mature response vindicates the rights of the player who was at the receiving end of the violation and it offers an opportunity to the player who offended to resolve his vulnerability.

One of the essential understandings of human behaviour that players need to be aware of and get practice in is that ‘another person’s behaviour is completely about him (or her)’.  When you personalise another’s person’s behaviour, you have lost the plot, because rather than leaving the offender’s vulnerability with him, you take on his behaviour and tap into your own vulnerability.  When Materazzi made his demeaning comments, if Zidane either totally showed no response or said ‘I’m happy to leave those comments with you, because they are about you’, then the head butting would not have occurred.  What was it that led Zidane to lose hold of his own strong sense of self and take on the darkness of Materazzi’s behaviour?  Only Zidane can answer this question, but if he does not, there is a danger that he will be violent again.  The same is true for Materazzi.

For the rest of us, we need to send out a very clear and strong message – we want to watch good football and not man’s inhumanity to men.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Whose Life Are You Living?