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ON SOCCER

Zidane's behavior insulting, as is his message

Zinedine Zidane finally revealed his side of the story Wednesday concerning his head-butting of Italy's Marco Materazzi and ejection from last Sunday's World Cup final in Berlin. Zidane had plenty of time to prepare for his comments during interviews with French networks Canal Plus and TF1. Unfortunately, his responses were in the ``wrong answer" category.

Zidane apologized but said his action was justified because he was provoked by Materazzi before being red-carded in a match Italy went on to win over France on penalty kicks. The billions of television viewers and nearly 70,000 spectators at Olympiastadion assumed there was provocation, but it did not give Zidane the right to react with violence.

In soccer games all over the world, at all levels, harsh words and insulting phrases are exchanged. There is an understanding, though, that such conflict should not spill over into physical attacks. If what Zidane proposed -- that his assault of Materazzi was justified -- it gives the green light to anyone to assault an opponent. And not just in soccer, but in any sporting activity.

Zidane accused Materazzi of insulting his mother and sister. Materazzi said he is particularly sensitive about mothers, since his died when he was 15, and denied saying anything about Zidane's mother.

Tomorrow, another player might take offense for another reason, and that player might do more than head-butt in the chest the presumed offending party.

``I am sorry for my action but I don't regret it," Zidane said. ``Materazzi insulted my mother and my sister, his words were harder than a head-butt. I apologize to the youngster that saw it. My action is not forgivable. I want to make that very clear because it was seen by 2 or 3 billion television viewers, millions and millions of youngsters watched it. I ask forgiveness from them and also from their teachers who teach youngsters what they should and should not do.

``I can't regret it because that would say that what he said was right. I can't, I can't, I can't say this. He does not have the right to say what he said."

Zidane confirmed the events that led to his ejection in the 110th minute of the match. Materazzi grabbed Zidane's shirt, Zidane told him to let go and he would give him his shirt after the game, then Materazzi began to insult him ``with very hard words, which he repeated several times. Words that sometimes are more harsh than any action. They were words that insulted me deep in my heart, that I don't want to repeat but concern personal things, that concern my mother and sister."

Zidane said he tried to ignore Materazzi. But after hearing Materazzi's insults for a third time, Zidane reacted.

``I am a man above all," Zidane said. ``I would have preferred a punch in the face rather than hear those words. So I reacted."

Wrong answer, once again.

Strong emotions are a part of soccer, and most high-level team sports. The participants in the World Cup are extremely competitive athletes in a highest-of-stakes event. The World Cup is mentally and physically demanding and their self-control and self-discipline are constantly being tested.

But lines must be drawn. No matter the circumstance, players simply must not respond with physical assaults. If physical assaults are condoned, there is no end to what a sufficiently motivated player might do to an opponent.

Soccer is already a rough and, at times, violent activity. Participants are often on the verge of committing dangerous acts in the run of play and, if they do so, are subject to punishment within the rules. But they cannot be given license to assault someone whenever they become angry.

Two years ago, Italy's Francesco Totti spit on Denmark's Christian Poulsen after having been constantly elbowed and kicked during a game in the European Championships. Totti apologized and did not attempt to justify himself; he had stepped over the line of fair play and, no matter the provocation, could not justify his action.

By admitting culpability, Totti sent the right message. Under no circumstances should a player spit on another player. And no matter what words are exchanged, no player should head-butt or otherwise strike another player.

Materazzi is the tough guy of Italy's national team and Inter, just as Poulsen is the hard man of Denmark and Schalke 04. Every team has a player like that, an enforcer type. That is the reality of professional soccer. Materazzi and Poulsen also are subject to limits on their behavior, and referees are supposed to keep a close eye on them. If those players transgress, the referee can caution or eject them. There is not much the referee can do about supposed insults. Fortunately, there is a heightened sensitivity toward racism in the international game, so if a racial incident occurs, it will often be confronted.

If Materazzi's comments had been racist, Zidane could have recourse through FIFA, soccer's international governing body, or, in many countries, the judicial system. But Zidane didn't suggest Materazzi had made a racist remark. For Zidane, the smart thing to do would have been to stay in control and help his team win the game. Afterward, Zidane could have dealt with Materazzi or simply let his accomplishment speak for itself. Instead, Zidane stepped over the line and was not available to France when the team needed him most, in the penalty-kick shootout.

There is more at stake here than the honor of Zidane's family. There is no place for such physical violence in soccer, or any legitimate team sport. Zidane needs to send the right message. Zidane must say that he would not repeat his action under any circumstance.

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