Icon on the margin


PICTURE-PERFECT: Zidane's off-field image replicates his on-field one.

PICTURE-PERFECT: Zidane's off-field image replicates his on-field one.  

ZINEDINE ZIDANE missed the "friendly" between France and Germany played in Stade de France, located in the underprivileged Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis. This inner city is where North African and Algerian immigrants go through their daily struggle called life.

It was supposedly the groin injury of Zidane (whose parents are of Algerian descent, and who was voted the most popular Frenchman of all time last year in a poll conducted by the popular tabloid Journal du Dimanche) that kept him out of the fixture. But his absence mirrored the total lack of visibility of the egalitarian, multicultural image that the French State and the media had launched with much fanfare in 1998, when "Les Blues", inspired by Zidane's two headed goals in the final against Brazil and comprising players from a multitude of ethnic minorities, had won the World Cup in Stade de France.

That June evening, images of the Algerian and French flags flying side by side during the victory celebrations were beamed out to the world, selling the French egalitarian dream. Seven years later, on a November evening, the friendly against Germany was staged in the midst of inner-city riots orchestrated by impoverished, unemployed youth of Algerian and North African descent. They are frustrated with developments such as their increasing economic marginalisation, racialisation of the public sphere after the anti-Arab, anti-black Front National entered the political mainstream during the 2002 Presidential elections and the hardline centre right rhetoric of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Zidane's life as a sporting icon is sandwiched between the two dates that represent the ends of the Manichean divide. Zidane has come up with some sublime performances as a midfield playmaker for club Real Madrid and country, of which he is the captain. His solidity, vision, and control at the centre have earned him the image of a stabilising influence in the team.

Zidane's off-field image replicates his on-field one. With football being at the very centre of the multi-billion dollar sport industry, such a careful construction of an icon's image is not unique. But, when it comes to Zidane, the biggest modern Western sporting icon from an ethnic minority, the margin of error is infinitely smaller than that for his club team-mate David Beckham, whose odd deviance from moral, sexual and emotional conformism only adds to his branding as a celebrity.

Zidane's iconicity is not just about economic fetishism that marks the celebrity stature of most sporting icons of Western capitalist countries. "Because of where he comes from, there is tremendous pressure on `Zizou' to be a role model," his brother Nordine told The Guardian. "There are sharks all around him who will misrepresent his statements and actions for political ends." Zidane has played out the roles of responsible father and husband perfectly, and, in true Algerian tradition, painted the picture of a joint family. He is hardly seen flaunting wealth — though his transfer from Juventus to Real Madrid in 2001 for �48 million is still a world record sum — and continues to live on in the Marseille suburb of La Castellene, whose poor residents he once called "my people".

Zidane, though, has been used politically. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, cleverly praised Zidane in 1998 as "a son of French Algeria", implying that he was a colonial subject. Le Pen's partymen added that he is acceptable to France because his father had been a harki, the Arab word for an Algerian who fought on the side of the French during the civil war that resulted in Algeria's independence in 1962.

The far-right propaganda resulted in Zidane being verbally attacked in the "friendly" match in October 2001 between France and Algeria — the first time the countries were playing each other after Algerian independence. Zidane went public about the sensitive issue of his identity after the match prematurely ended. "I say this once and for all. My father is not a harki. My father is an Algerian, proud of who he is and I am proud my father is Algerian. My father never fought against his country. Being Algerian, and proud of it does not mean that I am not French." Zidane thus fired his first salvo in his battle against the French right-wingers, the most recent of which was his campaign, supported by actor Gerard Depardieu, against the Front National.

Zidane is very much aware of the life of immigrants in France's inner cities. "I know that life in La Castellene and other cities is very tough. The sad thing is that people making political and financial decisions in France do not know the problems of people living in these areas," he once said in an interview. Though he backed his community in issues related to unequal development, he always chose the religion-blind voice of liberalism over the conservative religiosity of many Algerian immigrants in France. In early 2004, when the French Government proposed the bill to ban the use of religious symbols in educational institutions and work places, Zidane, when asked to comment, replied, "I have been a non-practising, non-praying Muslim and that is all what I would like to say about this."

Like Zidane, former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain is a non-practising Muslim. Hussain started off his career in 1989 attacking the infamous Tebbit Test of determining the loyalty of British Asians and speaking of a double consciousness that characterised the community. However, as England captain in 2001, Hussain asked British Asians to support England instead of India or Pakistan, thereby playing into the hands of the political right, which has manufactured the where-you-come-from versus where-you-live divide.

In 2001, there were riots involving Asians and whites in parts of northern England. Zidane is now faced by almost identical circumstances as Hussain. The million Euro question is whether the Frenchman will succumb to pressure and speak the language of bipolar social identities.