Joan Smith: Zidane a hero? No. He has struck a blow for misogyny

He could have treated the insult with contempt and walked away
Click to follow

Professional footballers describe each other as hijo de puta (son of a whore) all the time. They do not mean it literally, and the captain of France, Zinedine Zidane, who was sent off after butting an Italian defender during the World Cup final, can hardly complain about being the recipient of an insult he himself is said to have employed against two referees during the tournament.

I suppose we have to entertain the possibility of linguistic confusion here; I cannot help wondering whether Zidane thought Marco Materazzi had described his mother as an amica di Prescott, which would be truly awful.

Materazzi has been self-deprecating about his language skills, protesting that he couldn't have called Mme Zidane a terrorist, as some observers have suggested, because he does not know what the word means. I assume he's referring to the unresolved quest for a definition which has foxed even the UN, and is no doubt frequently discussed at half-time in the Inter dressing-room.

If this suggests I am not treating the Zidane-Materazzi spat seriously, it is only because I am so irritated by the nonsense that has been spouted about it. From secular lefties to Islamic hardliners, commentators have fallen over themselves to discuss the incident as a heartbreaking aberration. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the 1968 student protests in France and now a Green MEP, hailed Zidane as the hero of a Greek tragedy; an Iranian MP, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, wrote to congratulate the player on his "logical" reaction to an insult to his "humane and Islamic" identity.

Er, would that be the same player who describes himself as a non-practising Muslim and who has been accused of apostasy? Indeed it would. Zidane could have treated Materazzi's accusation with contempt and just walked away. But he does have form, having been sent off on 14 occasions for retaliating against physical or verbal abuse. Like many top players, including Wayne Rooney, Zidane is in urgent need of advice on how to control his temper.

The point almost everyone has missed is the nasty assumption that makes "sledging" - sportsmen exchanging insults - such an effective way of winding up opponents. Forget chivalry: Zidane made much of the insult to his family in his televised non-apology, but this is one occasion in which women are completely marginalised.

The insult was directed not at the "honour" of Zidane's female relatives but that of the player himself, for patriarchal cultures insist men are responsible for the chastity of their womenfolk. As a Berber from a Muslim background who grew up in Catholic Marseille, Zidane would have been exposed to a double dose of patriarchal attitudes.

He is likely to assume that when one man describes another's mother as a whore, he's not just questioning his paternity; he's making the even more unbearable suggestion that the target of abuse is not man enough to control the women in his family. Such an accusation invokes the deep-seated masculine insecurity that leads in extreme cases to "honour" killings, and the failure of most of the European media to detect this sinister undertone is breathtaking.

I am not suggesting Zidane would support such killings. What I am saying is that the men who run professional football, while making a concerted effort to stamp out racism, have not even begun to tackle the game's ingrained misogyny. Perhaps they could start by discouraging the tendency to turn violent players into heroes.