Graeme le Saux: an insiders' guide to the taunting that taints top-class football

How common is the verbal abuse endured by Zinedine Zidane? Very common, writes someone who should certainly know
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After Zinedine Zidane was dismissed on Sunday night I found myself unable to concentrate on the rest of the World Cup final, even the penalties. I just kept thinking about him sitting in the dressing-room with his head in his hands, thinking, "Why did I react?" Because of a couple of things that happened in my career I know better than just about anyone in English football what he was going through, and could almost put myself in his position. I knew, as well as the remorse and regret, he would be feeling very lonely.

Of course, I never played in a World Cup final, let alone was sent off in one, but I was sent off three times and two other incidents clouded my career. As I'm sure you'll remember, they were the one with Robbie Fowler, when he bared his backside at me, and the fight with David Batty when we were Blackburn Rovers team-mates.

The first one did not really have any parallels with Sunday. People said it was like sledging but it was not just him and me, it was him, me, 40,000 watching at Stamford Bridge and millions more on television. The fight in Moscow bore more similarities because David said something, something personal, and he got aggressive, and I reacted, I lost the plot the same way Zidane did. I didn't butt him, and I wasn't sent off, but I did get a lot of time to stew because I broke my hand when I punched him and had to be substituted. I remember sitting there feeling terrible for everyone. I felt I had let everyone down.

Zidane will have felt that. You almost wish you could turn the clock back for him. Obviously he has got an Achilles' heel. Inside that calm exterior there is pent-up frustration, that sort of passion that lets you down sometimes. But someone of his stature does not deserve to have that weakness shown up on that stage.

In a way he is a victim. It does not justify his reaction but invariably the person who reacts, reacts with no subtlety and no premeditated process. Something snaps, you react, then you think, "Oh no, what have I done?" Certainly in Moscow, I wished so much I had had time to think before I acted.

We'd had a problem between us in training a few weeks before, and things weren't going well for Rovers as a team, but if it had happened at the training ground, where it should have done, the context would have been very different. It actually defused the situation between us but it created a whole mountain of other problems for us and the club. It left marks on both our careers.

I've had a lot of stick throughout my career and always had to take the higher ground. Ninety-five per cent of the time I managed to do so but that five per cent is what people recall. It shows how hard it is to keep a lid on it all the time.

There seems no doubt that Zidane's actions were a response to something Materazzi had said, and many of the watching millions may have been surprised - and depressed - that players in such a high-profile game will deliberately taunt each other.

However, I don't think many professional footballers will have been surprised. Quite a lot is said in games, including World Cup games. People try to upset you psychologically. They look for weaknesses. When I started there was a lot of racist abuse of black players, they had to deal with it. Fortunately that's rare now.

Threats are another thing that used to be common but are not any more. I remember when I was a young player a manager shouting as someone went to tackle me, "Break his legs". I was furious but I kept control. Patrick Vieira threatened to "sort me out" next time he saw me after he was sent off against me in an Arsenal v Chelsea match. For years I wanted to get my own back on Billy Costacurta, the Milan and Italy defender. He had punched me, completely unprovoked, on the referee's blind side when England drew in Rome in 1997. I was absolutely shocked. I'm over it now. Probably.

You get history between players, as with Dennis Wise and Nicky Butt. Players get abused for being ugly. But sometimes it is funny. Ian Wright told me about a cup game when the player marking him kept abusing him. After about 70 minutes, during which time Wrighty had said nothing but scored twice, he turned to the guy and said: "Don't you get it? I don't talk to Third Division players."

Franck Leboeuf used to get stick. He would just say, "I have a World Cup winners' medal," which only made him even more unpopular with opponents. Robbie Savage also gets abuse. I actually knocked him out once with a clearance. A couple of his team-mates, who shall remain nameless, said it was "the best thing that had happened all season".

Losing the plot can happen to the coolest players. Playing for Chelsea at Middlesbrough once Marcel Desailly got involved with Fabrizio Ravanelli. There must have been some history there. I suddenly realised the pair of them had completely lost focus, Marcel was right off his game, they had both "gone". Usually it's all forgotten when the final whistle blows. Sometimes it carries on in the tunnel, but I think that's a bit unprofessional.

Zidane will have suffered taunts before. Being of Algerian descent he will have suffered racial abuse; his huge talent will also have made him a focus for comments. It is just such a shame he could not deal with it on Sunday.