Brian Viner: Royal and Ancient code contrasts with ugly modern face of 'beautiful game'

A footballer who turns his bonce into a battering ram is worthy only of contempt
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The Independent Online

Am I alone in not giving a brass pfennig what Marco Materazzi did or didn't say to Zinedine Zidane in Berlin last Sunday evening? At times this week it has seemed as if I am.

The issue has been furiously debated in the media, lip-reading experts have been brought in, the antagonists themselves have given contrasting accounts, Presidents and prime ministers have had their say, and the consensus in some quarters - and numerous quartiers - seems to be that if the Italian did utter something racist pertaining to the Frenchman's parents, or something sexual about his sister, then, while the head-butt can in no way be excused, it was understandable. Indeed, some have gone further and suggested that there was a kind of nobility about it.

But all these people are missing the target as comprehensively as an English penalty-taker. Materazzi might have called Zidane's parents "terrorists", or he might simply have called him "baldy". He might have called his sister a whore, or he might (quite reasonably, in my view) have suggested that a CV without Everton on it is as good as worthless.

The fact is that, pace the headline writers of The Sun, it doesn't matter what made the ZZ top blow. Because a footballer who responds to any kind of verbal provocation by turning his bonce into a battering ram - in any match, let alone football's global showpiece - is worthy of nothing but contempt.

The contempt for Materazzi should not be in any way commensurate; indeed, it worries me to learn that Fifa has, with something of a fanfare, "opened disciplinary proceedings" against the Italian. It looks as if he might be made to carry the can, especially if he is judged guilty of a racist insult. Such is the stigma surrounding racism that Zidane's assault will then be seen as the lesser crime. And I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous.

Winding up opponents by saying disgusting things about them or their relatives has been happening since medieval kickabouts with a pig's bladder.

It's not nice, but it happens. The truly great players, who are targeted more than most, rise imperiously above it. So, although Zidane's butt does not expunge his effervescent genius from the history books, it obliterates his right to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele or even Maradona, who broke plenty of rules in his time, for the simple reason that the enduring image of France's beloved "Zizou" will be with his head bowed charging into an opponent's chest in front of one of the biggest television audiences a single football match has ever had.

Whichever way you look at it, that's a disgraceful legacy. Should one moment of hot-headedness be permitted to stain an entire career? In this instance, unequivocally yes.

There will be those who question my own right to stalk the moral high ground on the basis that I was among those who cheered Duncan Ferguson to the Goodison Park rafters in Everton's final match of last season. It's a fair point, but a disingenuous one. Ferguson's occasional bursts of thuggishness appalled me, but he never let himself, his team-mates or his country down as operatically as Zidane did six days ago. Moreover, Ferguson was that kind of player; Zidane didn't have to be.

Anyway, I'm banging on about the World Cup when what I intended to write about when I sat down with fingers poised over the keyboard was the forthcoming Open Championship. But it's easy enough to connect the two.

The World Cup, for all the glimpses it afforded of the beautiful game at its most beauteous, offered more darkness than light. For many of us, the nadir - even more dispiriting than Zidane's attack on Materazzi - was seeing Thierry Henry cheating. In fact, my brother-in-law Tony, with whom I watched a couple of matches, made the perceptive comment that "football is on the edge as to whether it actually works or not". He was right. Cheating - which encompasses shirt-pulling, time-wasting and feigning injury as well as diving - is so endemic that it has been absorbed into the game.

At next week's festival of golf, by happy contrast, the level of cheating will be negligible. The rules of the Royal and Ancient game, some of them absurdly arcane, are so strictly enforced that there is hardly any latitude even for rule-benders, let alone rule-breakers, and it is for that reason that such a fuss was made of Colin Montgomerie's dubiously replaced ball at the Indonesian Open last year, which gave him an improved stance after play the day before had been suspended.

Equivalent things happen in football every 30 seconds, yet Monty was excoriated for it. There are even those who cynically think that Darren Clarke - who subsequently chipped out sideways in remarkably similar circumstances after leprechauns improved his overnight lie at the Irish Open - was motivated less by moral rectitude than by a desire to show up his Ryder Cup team-mate. Either way, cheating in golf lies at the outer margins of the game. In football, it's right there in the centre circle.

Who I like this week...

Paul Collingwood, the latest saviour of English cricket, who in the first Test match against Pakistan has spent the last couple of days issuing a spirited "up yours" to all those who, while recognising him as an asset to England's one-day team, doubted his suitability for the five-day - or in its more common modern incarnation, the four-and-a-bit day - game. Collingwood is such an honest grafter that not even the Pakistanis could begrudge him his maiden Test-match century on home soil, and at Lord's to boot. Moreover, Collingwood showed one or two more celebrated team-mates how to go on from a century to post a really big score, a skill that has eluded too many England batsmen in recent years. I hope Duncan Fletcher tells him that his place is secure.

And who I don't

Football agents, who could, of course, be the objects of my disdain every week in this space, but who deserve particular castigation now as, while very possibly gleefully rubbing their hands, they attempt to cash in on the World Cup. Not all of them are bloated, unethical, predatory, parasitical rogues. One or two of them might even be the kind of chaps you wouldn't mind marrying your daughter. But on the whole I'm with the Reading chairman, John Madejski, who this week blamed agents for the spending culture in the Premier League. "It is obscene that everything is so darned expensive," he complained. "It is just horrible."

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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