human frailty as told by Zinedine

let me preface my World Cup Final observations by admitting how much I admire Zidane. His swansong I awaited like a numbed coke head, yearning for the highs of yesteryear, yet never truly expecting much more.

that it ended bittersweet was very French, very fitting and very forgettable, the effects of whisky having a far more brutal effect on my memory than age did on the Algerian-born star.

for those fully aware of the poetry and irony that littered the game, forgive my indulgence:

1. Zidane’s penalty must go down as the cheekiest of all time. He sold a dummy to the world’s best and most expensive goalkeeper, who would have saved it had he simply stood still and stuck out his left arm. More than that – he managed to score a goal without the ball touching the net. This is no mean feat, and usually requires the assistance of an opposing defender who’s furiously scrambling to clear the ball away but is beaten by the narrowest of margins.

2. Zidane and Materazzi scored the two goals in normal time. You probably know that.

3. David Trezeguet, who missed the penalty that doomed the French, plays for Juventus in Italy. He was also the one who scored the extra-time winner against the Italians in the 2000 Euro Cup Final, a match best remembered for the Italian bench, arm-in-arm on the sidelines, prematurely celebrating an imaginary 1-0 victory while the clock still ticked…sure enough, Wiltord equalized for the French in injury time, setting up extra-time and then along came David Trezeguet.

4. In the week following their victory, the Italian Football Federation, embroiled in match-fixing scandals even before the World Cup, passed judgement on several leading Italian Clubs. Juventus (who Zidane used to play for) were the worst hit, falling to Serie B (Division 2), where they will probably flounder for a while. A mass exodus of players – Cannavaro, Buffon, Zambrotta etc. – is expected. AC Milan were also hit hard, and will start next season in Serie A with a serious handicap.

What does this all mean? Next season, Italy’s almost-team, the perennial underachievers, the chokers, Inter Milan, will probably have their best shot at a Serie A title since the days of Lothar Matthaus and his German gang.

And, in all likelihood, after his impressive World Cup, their defence will probably be manned by the irrepressible Marco Materazzi.
What a week he’s had. Talk about winning things because your opponents aren’t around.

Like I said, forgive my indulgence, for now the serious story begins.

I do not believe any commentator out there has done the head-butting incident justice.

Many have pontificated for hours over the words that were exchanged; the moment’s hesitation before violence erupted (“It was a premeditated head-butt!); the moral justification (or lack thereof) for responding with violence; the legacy that was Zidane; the culpability of the foul-mouthed Marco and other banalities that are almost always argued with colored lens on.

Discussing these things is all well and good, and fills many an evening beer chat, but really skirts around the most important human lesson to be derived from all this:

We are frail and fearful creatures, and if, in moment of intense stress and pressure, are pushed into corners and ordered to remain there, are prone to respond with momentary lapses of reason. And violence.

My father has told me that if he were Zidane, he would never have responded with violence. He knows this because others have cursed his mother and sister before and he hasn’t responded.

I find this the most ridiculous statement (I told him so).

Simply because he has no idea how Zidane feels! The only person who would know how somebody would respond when placed in such a situation is, well, Zidane. And we got a clear answer.

My father would have no idea what it feels like to grow up as a Muslim Algerian in (ex-colonizer) Catholic France and then have to fight your way to stardom despite bigotry and all kinds of other pressures.

I flipped the question back to him:
Why would somebody – a model human being and global citizen, a role model and idol for millions of children the world over, in front of a billion watchers, on his swansong, on the verge of etching his name next to Pele’s and Maradona’s in footballing folklore – respond with violence?

In my mind, there is only one answer – human psyche is such. Human frailty is such. If even the most ostensibly glorious person responds with violence, how can we expect the average character to wave an olive branch?

I have therefore chosen to view Zidane as a prism for human psyche and actions.

the next time somebody asks me why a Palestinian or a Lebanese or a Tamil or a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew chooses to pick up a weapon, Zidane has shown that even the most exalted character, in a dream theater, chose violence as expression.

(But I merely seek to understand violence, not justify it. Zinedine Zidane, my idol and hero, is a blooming idiot for doing what he did. But he made me remember one thing – not everbody is Mahatma. Not everybody can turn the other cheek.)

football in america

like most of you, i have been glued to the world cup.

following it here, in the US, has been a particularly fascinating experience. Speaking to Americans and listening to American commentators has given me some insights into their thoughts on football, and maybe, life.

americans have an obsessions with stats. at many inopportune moments during a game, ESPN will indulge in a computer graphic that shows some inane statistic – like number of times a team that has gone a goal down before half time has eventually won, number of headers on target in the last 15 minutes or number of blond players to have won a world cup.

the statistic is obviously then used to suggest something about the probability of certain outcomes during the game. sometimes, there is sense behind this. after all, there must be concrete reasons – lethargy on one side, a desperate dash to the death for the other – why so many goals have been scored in the last 15 minutes of play. concrete reasons that are, quite likely, to play out again.

but when pure statistics are used to buttress grandiose statements, things get ridiculous. “The Swiss have the best defence” or “The Spanish are the most impressive team”, two things I heard after the first round.

This obsession with statistics also leads them to carve up the game into 15 minute blocks, or worse still, individual plays. “Sweden lost the game in 12 minutes and 2 plays” after their match with Germany, the commentator then suggesting that they had only been beaten, that they were only inferior, over the course of those 12 minutes. Which, of course, ignores any difference in the way Germany would have played had they not scored those 2 goals early on.

In truth, Germany was by far the better team over 90 minutes. Sweden never had a sniff.

thus, what is to many of us a beautiful 90 minute drama of shifting tides, fiery motivations, unbridled joy and intolerable anguish is summarily reduced to a couple of key events or highlights. sure, every sports highlight show does this, but my point here is that this is the way Americans approach their sport.

I was shocked, disappointed, and then mostly amused, when I was supposed to watch a great game with an American friend, and he casually told me, “Yah, don’t worry, we can go grab some burgers and easily get back with 30 minutes of the game left.”


Besides being a poignant commentary on the American preference for eating over exercise, the point is that the end result and the key incidents are all that matter here. But then again, maybe that is all that’s important. Why do we the rest of the world get so caught up with everything in between?

I also found out why football will never make it big in America. Not enough stoppages for ad time. So not enough money. So not enough interest. The mullah matters too much here, not the beauty of the game.

Finally, a little something on their penchant for irritatingly obvious puns. ESPN came up with numerous catch phrases, like “Swede Sixteen” when Sweden went through to the 2nd round, and “Going, going, Ghana”, when Brazil had almost beaten the Africans. I found it tiresome after a while, but the smart cookies at ESPN will be happy to know that a pandemonium of parrots in bars across America were titilated by these linguistic tricks. Play it again, sam.

The Ticket Auntie only strikes fear in the hearts of some

“What la, these fellas, spend hundred dollars on petrol, one two dollars also cannot put,” said the Skinny Tamil as he walked past me. I was sitting on the Astroturf at St. Wilfred’s Sports Complex, off St. George’s Rd, Bendemeer. I quite like playing there. Except for the micro black rubber sand that squirms into every possible crevice on your person – shorts, shirts, boots, hair. Oh, and falling on that frictionfull pitch can leave you with a nasty burn.

Skinny Tamil had just walloped the ball out of play (the tennis players on the adjacent courts were by now used to Size 5 Adidas balls bouncing in, interrupting their games. HAHA! There’s another class juxtaposition for you: Soccer vs. Tennis players) so that all the car-owning players could rush off the field, snatch their car key from their sport bags, and rush to their car before the Ticket Auntie got there. The Ticket Auntie? Yes, the dreaded Ticket Auntie. Dressed in white and blue. Prowling Singapore’s car parks for cars sans coupons. Keying offender’s details into their mobile computers and then issuing ‘samans’ (fines). I would hate their job. Their job is to bring misfortune to others. The more sadness they bring, they more money they make. Can you imagine? Every time you make money, you infuriate somebody. And nobody likes getting fined for parking offences. Especially when there are tons of spots available. I mean, what’s the Marginal Cost of me parking there, right? ZERO!

Anyway, somebody on the sidelines had screamed, “Ticket Auntie here!” a desperate call to action that most players initially dithered over. Once it sunk in, and Skinny Tamil had booted the ball out, the car-owners sprung into life, and raced off the field. Some got there in time, a few others ‘kena saman’ (got fined). Ticket Aunties showed no remorse. They had to make a living.

But Skinny Tamil had a point. Why do the few Singaporeans fortunate enough to own $100,000 cars find it so difficult to punch out $1 parking coupons? Lazy? In a rush? Cheap? Or that old adage, “Do what you want, just don’t get caught”?

Lazy? Are Singaporeans lazy? We can be if we want to. “Chin Chai la”. “Bo Chup”. A bit of laziness in there

In a rush? Often we are. Often we invent it. Often we like to seem it.

Cheap? Again, we can be if we want to. Maybe frugal’s a better description though.

“Do what you want, just don’t get caught”?

That has Singapore written all over it. It’s in our blood, it pumps through our veins, it clouds every decision we make.

I bet that most people who don’t display coupons feel they’re not going to get caught.

“Quickly, lah, I’m sure I can run in and ta pao some char kway teow before she comes round.”

But at a more macro level, this strikes at a very fundamental Singaporean chord. We act according to what we can and cannot do. We think and speak with boundaries firmly in place. We walk where we’re told to, and don’t dance where we’re barred from.

Rules (and enforcement) govern our lives. Completely and absolutely. We Singaporeans have outsourced our moral judgment to our Government. It happened a long time ago. We flush the toilet not because we want to keep it clean. We flush because there is a big fat fine waiting for the pee crime.

When will we move from a culture of negative enforcement to positive enforcement? From sticks to carrots? When will organic civic consciousness grow and the need for top-down Government instruction decline? Who knows. Who really cares.

Why, you may ask, do we need positive enforcement if the negative works? The outcome is the same, isn’t it? Either way, the toilet gets flushed, right? Yes. But the spirit is different. And only when we start flushing because we care for the next user (and not because of a fine fear), will we be able to escape the self-interested, egotistical complex that this system has bred in us.

But this post has gone off-topic a bit. Let me bring it back, unsuccessfully probably. Skinny Tamil, after uttering the opening line of this blog to me, walked to his team’s psuedobench, where their belongings were. And then it struck me. Skinny Tamil’s entire team was there! They were still by the pitch! Not a single one of them had heeded the

“Ticket Auntie here!” call! They must be frustrated with us. Half our team had gone. We were holding the game up.

Half our team had cars, none of theirs did. Our team was Chinese (save for a Manjew – half Manjen, half Jew – and me), theirs was Indian.

All said and done, the wealth disparity in this country is startling.

This is not a jack against the powers that be. I doubt they can do much about this instantly. No silver bullet. In fact, we already live in a splendid meritocracy. We have tremendous equality in educational opportunity, compared to many other nations. No country has yet learnt how to redistribute wealth well, especially when the disparity falls along racial lines.

But we must keep trying.