The Social and Political Aspects of Zidane’s Image

Written in 2009 by Sara Murphy and Alex Tschumi

Edited and Updated in 2013 by Kavin Tamizhmani, Becca Fisher, Caitlin Moyles, Rosa Toledo, and Elena Kim

 

The right man at the right time..

Zidane emerged from the ’98 World Cup as a hero and international icon. Although he was hailed for his performance and ability as a soccer player, this was not the sole contributor to his unprecedented popularity and success. Equally as important were the social and political conditions that existed in France, which played a defining role in shaping Zidane’s image and influence among fans and critics alike. Zidane capitalized on the unique opportunity provided by the World Cup, as an arena in which power of sport and society could be combined. His recognition and acceptance of this position enabled his transformation into a figure of hope and identity for individual people and entire populations, and allowed for his significance to transcend far beyond the lines of the soccer field.

The climate in France during the ’98 World Cup was one of tense political and social division, which stemmed from the diverse makeup of multi-ethnic backgrounds that comprised the nation’s people. Much to the surprise of France, and the rest of the world, the tournament had the unforeseen effect of challenging the established views of social discrimination and racism that prevailed throughout the country. The win for the host nation spurred an immediate wave of nationalism, football mania, and an array of social and political repercussions. France’s national team, as reflection of the country’s diverse population, became the symbol of France’s maturation towards a unified national identity, and the possibility of greater social mobility. At the forefront of this revolutionary phenomenon was Zidane.

In 1998, Zidane was recognized by fans and commentators around the world as a “powerful and inspiring rejection of racism in French society.”[2] A Kabyle by descent, Zidane was born in Marseille and grew up playing football in the poor town of La Castellane. His parents emigrated from the Berber region of Algeria in the 1950s, and thus represented the masses of immigrants that had become part of France’s multi-ethnic population. Their story, shared by so many others, is one of immense hardship marked by poverty, depression, and discrimination. While there were many players on the French national team each with their own diverse background and unique heritage, it was Zidane who was singled out as the figure of “successful integration.”[3] Despite the connotation of the term “integration,” and its implication of an inherent division, this was a step in a positive direction for France. The reality of the situation, revealed in a poll taken just prior to the World Cup, was that thirty eight percent of the French population admitted to being racist.[4] For Zidane, the face of France’s multiethnic society, “integration” was seen as a monumental achievement. His belief and commitment to wield his power on and off the field to promote this transformation were consistently evident in his words and actions during the World Cup. The extent of Zidane’s influence, however, was dependent on the careful balance between his identity as a talented soccer player and his complex inherited and experienced identity as a French citizen.

His words, actions and impact…

The World Cup was never intended to spark political and social change, much less produce a figure capable of providing a real challenge to racism in France. Zidane was well aware of the importance held by his performance on the field, and how it translated into French society. He also recognized the fragility of the situation, and so his approach to the media was one of caution and calculation. Zidane has received ample criticism for not taking a more vocal stance in the wake of the ’98 World Cup, and for “sidestepping politics” with his trademark, ‘I have no message,’ response to questions. His public persona was “as carefully constructed and as skillfully defended as any of his most elaborate midfield moves.”[5] As a result, the few comments Zidane did make regarding the World Cup carried a heightened level of significance for his audience in France and the world abroad.

In regards to the final match of the World Cup, Zidane has said that he saw the championship against Brazil as being “the final game of an entire people,” and his first goal the best “single image” of the “power of integration.”[6] These two statements, in their apparent contradiction, embody Zidane’s internal conflict as it represented the larger situation in French society. This moment of confirmation easily could have been defined in a confrontation of opposing loyalties. As part of a discriminated race and a discredited team, it would not have been surprising if Zidane had claimed the victory for himself and les Beurs. Instead, in a demonstration of strength and revolutionary character, he presented the win to the entire nation of France, while simultaneously acknowledging the social and political importance of the moment.

The significance of Zidane’s balancing act between the loyalty to his roots and dedication to France was not lost on the public. Zidane’s position was the ultimate confirmation of the merging of cultures that French fans were experiencing as they supported their team. In the celebration of the nation’s victory, the issue of race was not simply made irrelevant but actually transformed into a source of pride and collective identity. In an attempt to capture the remarkable change taking place amongst the sea of French and Algerian flags that decorated the joyous crowds, one reporter wrote: “There was no more hierarchy, or convention. No more disdain, no more bad mood. No more social classes, no more provincials or banlieusards. Nothing but the extraordinary, like a world upside down.”[7] Following in the path set forth by their hero, the French population rallied behind the figure of Zidane and his move towards modernization, declaring him the symbol of the “new France.”

Despite Zidane’s best efforts to separate himself from the political sphere, the media and French population found every excuse to formulate this connection. The presence of politics was hard to ignore; in the celebration that followed, cheers of “Zizou for President!” rang through the crowds and commentators declared, “There is only one political party tonight.”[8] Many saw the national team’s victory as representative of “a decisive defeat against the National Front” and its powerful, allegedly racist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen had famously discredited the French national football team, prior to the World Cup, as being ‘artificial’ for having too many players of ‘foreign,’ or multinational descent.[9] This and similar comments were not forgotten by Zidane who pronounced the team’s victory, “the most beautiful response to intolerance.”[10] Following the win, Le Pen and his party were essentially forced to publicly congratulate the team and conceded in acknowledging Zidane as the “principle artisan of the final victory.”[11] On a less controversial note, in a great political gesture, French President Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin both donned French jerseys at the post-game celebration and made numerous statements praising the team on their success. The symbolic importance of this act “marked the solidarity of the French nation from highest office to poorest immigrant children in Marseille worshipping Zidane.”[12]

Zidane has since described his first goal in the final match of the ’98 World Cup as “a powerful, even transcendental, sign of possibility”.[13] While this could be interpreted as the hopeful words of a football player who has put his team ahead in the biggest game of their lives, on a greater level it was what Zidane gave to his fans around the world. For those who suffered unjust discrimination on the basis of race or culture, Zidane created a new national identity and redefined what it meant to be a French citizen. In the words of Sami Naïr, an Algerian born scholar of immigration and consultant to the French government, Zidane “does more with the motion of his hips than ten or fifteen years of policies of integration.”[14] Equally as important was what the figure of Zidane provided in the realm of social mobility. Fans young and old, rich and poor, celebrated in the confirmation of the “football dream.”  At the root of Zidane’s popularity, fame and success was the fact that he was an inspiration and living proof that that anything can be made possible through sports.

How to cite this article: “The Social and Political Aspects of Zidane’s Image,” Written by Sara Murphy and Alex Tschumi (2009), Edited and Updated by Kavin Tamizhmani, Becca Fisher, Caitlin Moyles, Rosa Toledo, and Elena Kim (2013), Soccer Politics Pages, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp (accessed on 10/17/13).

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[2] Dubois, Laurent. Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France. Berkeley: University of California, 2010: 227.

[3] Dauncey, H. and Hare, G. ‘World Cup France 98: Metaphors, meanings, and values’, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 1999. 35: 3. 11.

[4] Fraser, N. “Cup of joy,” July 15, 1998. Observer.

[5] Hussey, “ZZ Top.”

[6] Basse, Zidane-Dugarry, in Dubois, Soccer Empire, 231, 258.

[7] Cojean, Annick, “A la Bastille, un 14 juillet ‘en plus drôle,’” Le Monde, July 14, 1998, 3. In Dubois, Soccer Empire, 237.

[8] Institut National de l’Audiovisuel « Tous en finale, » TF1 12 July 1998. In Dubois, Soccer Empire, 237.

[9]Dubois, Soccer Empire, 247; Marks, J. “The National Team and French National Identity.” France and the 1998 World Cup: the National Impact of a World Sporting Event. Ed. Dauncey H. and Hare, G. London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999. 50.

[10] Dubois, Soccer Empire, 259.

[11] “Le FN fait de Zidane un ‘enfant de l’Algérie française,’” Le Monde, 15 July 1998, 12. In Dubois, Soccer Empire, 260.

[12] Dauncey, H. and Hare, G. ‘World Cup France 98: Metaphors, meanings, and values’, 12.

[13] Dubois, Soccer Empire, 232.

[14] Ibid., 247.

 

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