The Head-Butt Felt 'Round the World

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

I followed the 2006 World Cup while traveling through four countries, the US, the UK, Germany and France. I watched the final match between France and Italy in a movie theater on the Champs-Élyseés. Like the French fans surrounding me, I was shocked when France's star, Zinedine Zidane, playing in the final game of his illustrious career, head-butted Italy's Marco Materazzi in the chest and was thrown out of the game. His action was rightly condemned as setting a bad example for the hundreds of millions of children who were watching the match. But when I returned to the United States, I was equally shocked that so many Americans refused to condemn Materazzi for speaking the words that provoked Zidane, dismissing Materazzi's behavior as acceptable "trash talk."

FIFA, soccer's governing body, made it clear before the World Cup started that its referees were going to crack down on bad behavior. Consequently, in the tournament's 64 matches, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of fouls called and the number of yellow cards and red cards awarded. The flow of play was repeatedly halted so that the referees could punish shirt-pulling, hard bumping and kicking an opposing player's toe. Unfortunately, the referees' crackdown did not include the much-despised practice of diving (collapsing to the ground while pretending to have been fouled). At the last World Cup in 2002, the referees did punish diving, much to the delight of soccer fans the world over. This year, however, diving was rarely punished, and outraged fans fumed as this form of cheating proliferated. The BBC even compiled a montage of the World Cup dives of Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Of course, FIFA did not even consider punishing players who verbally insult their opponents, a practice which is apparently considered nothing more than good clean fun.

In the case of Zidane-Materazzi, it is unclear what exactly the Italian said to provoke Zidane because Zidane refused to repeat the words when he was interviewed on French television. (Materazzi, a notorious thug, is not a credible source of information.) Zidane did imply that Materazzi repeatedly made insulting remarks about Zidane's mother and his sister. Lip-readers have suggested that Materazzi used the Italian word for "whore" and maybe the word for "terrorist." Whatever Materazzi said, Zidane claimed that he would rather be punched in the face than hear these insults to the female members of his family.

Fortunately, after days of ignoring Materazzi's remarks, FIFA has agreed to open a disciplinary hearing regarding what he said. Until then, here is FIFA's lesson for those hundreds of millions of children who watched the match and to whom Zidane apologized: You children should not head-butt your opponents and you should not pull their shirts, but if you want to call their mothers and sisters whores, that's alright.