Goodbye, Zinedine!

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Goodbye, Zinedine!
IconZinedine Zidane is a living soccer legend.  The captain and heart of France's 1998 World Cup winners, 2000 European Champions, and 2006 World Cup runners-up, Zidane seems entirely worthy of mention when discussing the pantheon of soccer greats - Pele, Becekenbauer, Cruyff, Platini, et al.  But after his brutal headbutt to Marco Matterazzi in his final professional game, the 2003 World Footballer of the Year should recieve at least a five-year international ban from any involvement whatsoever in the game of soccer.

If FIFA took the game seriously, this would have happened on the morning of July 10, 2006, just one day after Zidane's France lost the World Cup Final to Italy.

Instead, they gave him the Golden Ball award, reserved for the tournament's most valuable player.  Come again?

For starters, Zidane was far from the most valuable player in the tournament.  Unfortunately, in all sports, flashy and impressive displays of offensive skill often far outshadow the necessity of good, solid, routine defense in the eyes of both the media and the common fan.  Soccer is no different in this regard than baseball or basketball.  Regardless of how hackneyed the quip is, the old saying that "offense wins games but defense wins championships" is entirely true.  Not every tournament has an outstanding defensive player, but this one featured one of the best defensive performances in history by Italy's Fabio Cannavaro. 

Italy allowed exactly two goals in their entire World Cup run of seven games.  One was a fluke own-goal during the game against the United States.  The other was from a Zidane penalty kick in the final, which only happened because of a questionable call.  That means that Italy never allowed a "proper" or "normal" goal in seven games, shutting down such powerhouses as Czech Republic's Pavel Nedved, Ukraine's Andriy Shevshenko and Germany's Miroslav Klose, who was the leading goal scorer in the tournament.  Cannavaro was the main reason behind that outstanding defensive record.  Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was also superb, but the leadership Cannavaro provided the scandal-ridden Italian squad, even after his talented partner in defense Alessandro Nesta became injured, allowed for one of the all time best defensive performances in World Cup history.  When his team won the tournament, the Golden Ball should have gone flying into his arms.

But FIFA, with many of their voters casting their ballots before the end of the final, decided to go with the sentimental and popular favorite Zidane.  Once again, soccer's world governing body has shown itself to be hypocritical and moronic.  Earlier, they opted not to give the corresponding Young Player award to Portugal's Christiano Ronaldo because of his antics during the tournament.  Yet Zidane, after a week of media coverage about how special a player he is, received the award despite openly assaulting another individual on the field.

The obvious point here is that it should be mandatory for the voters of the Golden Ball to wait until after the tournament is concluded before selecting a recipient for the award.  The more latent point to which I wish to draw attention is that neither France nor Zidane will really recieve any penalty for this, which is completely ridiculous.  France did not lose the game because Zidane was expelled from the contest. After he left, all they had to do was hold on for 10 minutes.  Though they only had ten men, France's team generally had fresher legs since Italy used their subs early.  France easily made it, but then lost the shootout because David Trezeguet - one of the best strikers in the world - hit a penalty kick off the crossbar.  You can argue that France might have scored a goal in those last 10 minutes, but the reality is that Zidane's presence or absence was meaningless to the outcome of the game from that point on.

Generally, when one player assaults another on the field, FIFA gives the offender a lengthy international ban, meaning both he and his team are punished.  In this situation, however, Zidane is retiring, and therefore neither he nor France will be punished for his despicable actions.  For all practical purposes, Zidane's decision to throw his skull into Matterazzi's chest could have been a rational decision to help France win the title.  At that point in the match, the presence of a tall, strong defender is worth more than the presence of a fatigued midfielder - captain and legend or not.  Zidane could have just been taking a chance at injuring another key player with the referees' attention elsewhere; at that point, such action simply becomes worth the risk.

That is precisely why FIFA has to become proactive and give the legend a five-year ban.  If use of replays is not an option for the referees, what stops an aging player who knows he'll never play again internationally from punching an opponent with the ball at the other end of the pitch?  Such thoughts and situations are bound to occur.  And one solution to prevent similar ugly incidents in the future is to punish Zidane right now by preventing his participation in soccer for a few years.  While I firmly believe that what he did was not a rational decision but instead an emotive lapse of judgement, FIFA must provide a suitable punishment.

While a five-year ban may seem draconian, remember that FIFA has handed out bans of six months for passport issues and year-long bans for steroid use or gambling.  What, then, is appropriate for assaulting a human being on the turf of the World Cup final?  In this case - one of a newly-retired player - five years should be the bare minimum.  FIFA has done a fair job of combatting hooliganism and racism at soccer stadiums in recent years.  They need to step up here and prohibit Zidane from having anything to do with their game for a set time period to combat future hooliganism on the field and protect the image of the "beautiful game."

But like in the case of the Golden Ball award, FIFA - as is the nature of the beast - will likely excuse the legend and make the wrong decision. Zidane will be back in football with no punishment in the near future, though were he an ordinary foreigner in Germany he could have been hauled off by the Polizei with nary a question.  Perhaps that's just the way of the world, but that doesn't make it any more right, and were I king of soccer, it would literally be "Goodbye, Zinedine," starting today.

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