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Political Red Cards; If Life Were Like Futbol

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Talk about good timing. I arrived in Italy (Portofino, to be exact) just as the celebration over Italy's World Cup win kicked into high gear. Very high gear. Green, red, and white Il Tricolore Italian flags and blue Azzurri team jerseys are everywhere. And people are hugging and beaming and going wild in this country which, more than any other, has mastered functional anarchy. On TV, the video of French star Zinedine Zidane head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest has become the sports version of Howard Dean's scream, endlessly replayed. And like the Dean Scream, the Zidane Butt is all over the Web. I loved seeing how the New York Times website linked to a clip of it on YouTube -- one more bit of evidence that we're not in Media Kansas anymore, Toto (of course, the Times being the Times, they linked to the video featuring the moment as covered by French TV: "Mais pourquoi? Mais pourquoi? Mais pourquoi?" -- "But why? But why? But why?" -- the announcer plaintively repeats). And the Zidane mashups have begun in earnest.

Watching the game, it was immediately clear that the head-butt was going to be big. "Did you see the Italian guy pinched Zidane's nipple?" one of my very observant friends pointed out as soon as it happened. And then our game began: what did Materazzi say to Zidane right after the nipple pinch that provoked him to such an extent? (Most of the suggestions are not postable on a family blog).

"He must have said something about his mother," guessed one friend. "Like 'Your mother is a whore.'"

"No," said another. "These are, above all, macho guys. He pinched his nipple then said, 'Did you like that, sweetie?'"

Steve Martin provided the topper: "No, this is an Italian talking to a Frenchman. He must have told him 'Descartes bites the big one!'"

Given all the attention this is getting in the European press, we'll likely know the truth sooner rather than later, especially since Zidane is such a legend in France. Already one French paper, L'Equipe, is speculating that Materazzi called Zidane "a terrorist."

This is one of those cultural moments that can easily become, well, a political football. In the Times' coverage of the soccer match, and what it called Zidane's "astonishing act of unsportsmanlike behavior," the paper points out that Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, had, in leading France to victory in the 1998 World Cup, "struck a blow for multi-culturalism and became a rebuke of anti-immigration sentiment in France." Will that worm now turn?

French President Jacques Chirac praised Zidane at a lunch reception on Monday: "You are a virtuoso, a genius of football and an exceptional human being. That is why France admires you." But will far-right French politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen try to score political points using Zidane's moment of rage? As Simpsons writer Tim Long Blackberried me during the game: "Something tells me, Zidane is about to be transformed from French national hero into Algerian immigrant trouble maker." Talk about your penalty kick!

Watching the way Horacio Elizondo, the Argentinean referee, boldly reacted to Zidane's head-butt, resolutely showing him a red card and ejecting him from the game, made me think about how great it would be if we had the political equivalent of a red card -- something we could flash for campaign fouls and astonishing acts of bad political behavior that would immediately remove the perpetrators from the political pitch.

For instance, wouldn't you love to red-card Joe Lieberman for trying to have his primary and his independent run, too? (I'd show Barbara Boxer a yellow card for putting aside her anti-war principles and stumping for Lieberman in Connecticut.)

Tom DeLay threatening to retake the House seat he gave up last month? Red card!

And just think how much better our political life would have been if Karl Rove had been red-carded for his role in the vicious assault on John McCain during the 2000 South Carolina primary (a head-butt to the sternum isn't half as bad as push-polls spreading dark rumors that McCain had committed treason while a POW and fathered a black child with a prostitute). Or the way Rove helped Ralph Reed and Saxby Chambliss go after Max Cleland in 2002.

The Swift Boat crew would certainly have drawn a red card in 2004 -- as would the GOP hit squad currently trying to smear Jack Murtha.

And can you imagine how many red cards Patrick Fitzgerald would have whipped out during his Plamegate investigation? Grand juries are okay... but red cards rule!

The problem is we'd need a political referee willing to step up and pull the red card out of his pocket, even for a political superstar and even in the 110th minute of a political final.

And where oh where is our Horacio Elizondo?