There are few moments in recent sports history as riveting, perplexing, and widely debated as Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt to Marco Materazzi in the final match of the 2006 World Cup. Think of your own reaction when the referee stopped play to attend to Materazzi, and you then saw the reply of Zidane trotting away from the Italian defender, turning back, and driving his head into Materazzi’s chest. Perhaps a cheer of approval, or scorn for the blatant foul. Then the red card came out, and with it the realization that Zidane’s brilliant career had come to an end. And as the camera followed him leaving the pitch, and he passed the World Cup trophy waiting on its pedestal, we understood that Zidane’s act of anger had likely cost his team the victory.
Laurent Dubois, scholar of modern French history and devoted supporter of Les Bleus, recognized that the head-butt and the reactions it generated in France were questions needing serious investigation. Finding the answers, he understood, required looking beyond whatever insults Materazzi shot at Zidane in the 109th minute of the final match. Laurent’s book Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (University of California Press, 2011) sets Zidane’s act within multiple, overlapping frames: the history of the French national team and its traditionally multi-ethnic rosters; the development of football in France’s colonies; the experiences of immigrants from those colonies, like Zidane’s parents; the nationwide euphoria when France won the 1998 World Cup, with a team composed of players of Caribbean, New Caledonian, North African, and West African descent; and the poverty and social unrest in the banlieues of Paris and other French cities, where many of these players had grown up, which burst into violence in 2005. Against this backdrop, Laurent follows not only the story of Zidane but also that of his teammate on the national side, Lilian Thuram, a native of Guadeloupe who openly challenged the French government’s handling of the 2005 riots.
As Laurent explains in our interview, his research began as the personal quest of a fan seeking to understand the action of a player. But his book is about far more than football. Soccer Empire offers insight into contemporary Europe society, with its increasing population of immigrants from around the world, by looking through the lens of sport. And Laurent has opened an ongoing forum on soccer and society with his blog Soccer Politics, which offers his and other writers’ musings and research. For the thinking football fan, it is recommended reading on the larger significance of the game, in Europe and around the world.