Zinedine Zidane was a majestic footballer. Possessing an ethereal skill set and a calm majesty the likes of which have rarely been seen before or since, he is widely regarded as one of the games finest practitioners.
His final gift to the game, however, was a misnomer. A ballistic head-butt that slammed into Marco Materazzi’s chest, felling the Italian in limp acceptance. The Frenchman’s final act in football was a shamed trudge back to the dressing room.
The ramifications of Zidane’s act were multiplied by the fact that the match was the World Cup final, a match that France, drawing 1-1 at the time, went on to lose on penalties. For a time Zidane was strung up as the scapegoat for the French failure. Publicly castigated by all and sundry, it was a sad end to a wonderful career.
In the years since the infamous 'butt, however, the act has become warped, opinion has changed. Zidane’s headbutt on Materazzi, rather than defiling his reputation, has come to enhance it in the eyes of his legions of fans. Violence on a football field and especially an act of such shocking barbarism must never be congratulated, yet time softens the resolve. As a way to bid farewell, it will take some topping.
This weekend a far more hirsute incumbent to Zidane’s 'butting crown threw his afro into the ring. Marouane Fellaini, in Everton’s away draw against Stoke City this weekend, leveled Potters captain Ryan Shawcross with a premeditated vicious 'butt.
The incident, which took place during an Everton corner, went unpunished as it was not seen by referee Mark Halsey or his assistants. In such a situation, hindsight will inevitably be used and Fellaini’s brutality will yield its comeuppance, much to Everton’s detriment.
Yet more than this, the 'butt, one in a plethora of thuggery by Fellaini in the match which also included a punch and a raised elbow, sets a damning indictment against the player that will persist long after the inevitable ban.
As impossible as Zidane’s 'butt is to excuse it was his last act in football. He knew this going into the match and he knew this when he slammed his head into Materazzi’s solar plexus. The ramifications of his actions would go no further than to slightly tarnish his incredible reputation and put his side at a huge disadvantage in the match. The fact that France subsequently lost a match that they were favourites to win is inevitably apportioned onto Zidane’s forehead, but it did not put his career in jeopardy.
Fellaini, at just 24 years of age, is a wonderful footballer, enjoying the season of his life. It was almost inevitable that, at the end of the season, a concerted effort would be made to extradite him from Everton’s diminishing grip.
This may still happen—indeed it probably will—but Fellaini now comes with patently obvious baggage. A player that is willing to commit acts that in the wider world would be tantamount to assault, on a football field, before the eyes of the world is not a rational individual.
This is the latest in a series of disciplinary issues for the Belgian international. Yet, after two red cards in his debut season, Fellaini’s disciplinary record had recently begun to turn the corner.
Then, Saturday happened.
In terms of pure talent, Fellaini’s unique style would torture even the world’s finest players. He is a superb player that, on his day, is literally unplayable. It is also true to say that Fellaini is almost at a juncture in his life in which he must command regular European football, something that Everton cannot guarantee.
Now, Fellaini will be a marked man. After he returns from the ban, referees will be particularly mindful of his newly hyped reputation. Subsequent misnomers will be treated even more harshly by a Football Association desperate to maintain its good reputation. Prospective suitors will have to deal with this.
They will buy, for an inevitable £25 milllion-plus, the juxtaposition that is Marouane Fellaini.He could change, calm down and grow up. A more mature, rational player Fellaini would rightfully be acknowledged amongst the world’s best. On current form, though, this is a gamble.
This won’t stop the vultures from circling. Fellaini will leave for the regular Champions league football his talent deserves, almost inevitably to the nouveau riche of Man City or PSG.
Roberto Mancini and Carlo Ancelotti will hope that a leopard really can change its spots.