Butts, Booms and Bonobos

At five metres tall, Headbutt (Coup de tête) assumes the colossal scale usually reserved for Soviet monuments, Greek gods and dictators. The bronze sculpture depicts the moment, witnessed by hundreds of millions of incredulous spectators, Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in the chest during the 2006 World Cup final. Adel Abdessemed’s sculpture was described as an “ode to defeat” when it was unveiled in 2012 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The Qatar Museums Authority purchased the piece in 2013 (for an undisclosed amount) and installed it on the Corniche in Doha as part of its public art program. But the sculpture was transferred a few weeks later to the enclosed space of the Arab Museum of Modern Art after being widely criticised for glorifying violence and setting a bad example for young people (the French daily Le Monde speculated that Zidane used his influence as a member of the organizing committee for the 2022 Qatar World Cup to have the statue removed; Zidane was instrumental in Qatar’s successful bid to host the prestigious tournament, a coup he described as a “victory for the Arab world”.

The audacious scale of Headbutt is partly intended to reflect the exaggerated iconic status accorded to sporting heroes like Zidane (amplified by the contradictory forces that converge in the guise of sport). The real power of the most famous headbutt in history was not the force with which Zidane’s frontal bone struck Materazzi (whose chest would have comfortably absorbed the impact, turning it into a relatively mild, symbolic rebuke) but in the hysteria that surrounded the act. Zidane had come out of retirement to play in the World Cup. He was in the form of his life during the tournament, almost single-handedly helping a lacklustre France get to the final. Whatever the outcome of the game (tied at a nerve-racking 1-1 and deep into extra time), this was his final performance, his swan song, the crescendo to an extraordinary career.

Zinedine Zidane was a powerful symbol (he described himself, respectively, as a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseilles, then a Frenchman). The elegant symmetry of his name reflected the elegance of his footballing genius (he could splice a team apart with the intelligence of his passing). The alliterative resonance of his name and phonetic finality of his self-reinforcing initials bookended “Zizou” (as he was affectionately called by his many fans) with a peculiarly male mystique. Zidane embodied the spectrum of masculinity in an elusive, inscrutable (frequently hunched) figure. In his heyday he possessed that rare quality of symbolizing something for everyone. His technical artistry endeared him to football lovers. His strikingly handsome but vulnerable face appealed to the aesthete (if not the athlete) in everyone. He appeared to be a man unto himself. The Times described him as, “always severe and serious, but with that strange sense of detachment. It was as if he were well aware of the absurdity of football and, for that matter, of life.

He rarely smiled during games or after scoring. He rapidly went bald in full public view but merely shaved his head and looked more handsome than ever. His baldness even had a distinctive beauty about it: the hairline on the back of his head was perfectly bowl-shaped (a tonsure representing devotion and self-sacrifice) while his residual fringe had a dramatic widow’s peak that pointed arrow-like to his intense brow (prowess, virility). Journalists couldn’t write about him without remarking on his extraordinary physical presence. He “of stern face and sad eyes” was an unwitting (and unwilling) alpha male bracketed in zeds. His ethnic origins also made him a powerful political symbol in France and throughout the Arab world. President Chirac told Zidane (after the headbutt): “You are a virtuoso, a genius of world football. You are also a man of heart, commitment, conviction. That’s why France admires and loves you.” A prominent Iranian newspaper congratulated him on its front page for his “proud farewell” and the way he “defended his Islamic identity.” Quite simply, Zidane was whatever people wanted him to be.

The reaction to Zidane’s epic (but admittedly well taken) own goal was one of consternation, condemnation and stunned disbelief. The French sports daily L’Equipe wrote on its front page: “What should we tell our children, for whom you have become an example for ever?… How could that happen to a man like you?” The BBC fatuously opined: “Zidane has written glorious chapters in football’s recent history – how sad that he should save the most shameful episode for the final page of his story.”

Zidane’s widely proclaimed “moment of madness” subverted a (fairy-tale) narrative that had been set up (at vast expense) to play out according to a range of entertaining but manageable variables. That headbutt was a Glaswegian rebuff to sportsmanship, fair play, decorum, and all the other behavioural (social) ideals that sport theatrically exports from the real world to the (primal) arena. Lip-readers were brought in to try and salvage (extend) the story by identifying exactly what Materazzi had said to Zidane. Perhaps (hopefully) it was something so terrible, abusive and provocative that Zidane just couldn’t help himself? (One journalist memorably described the headbutt as a moment of “cosmic discontent”.)

Europe was experiencing a record-breaking heat wave at the time (40 people died in France alone). I, for one, was dripping with over-excitement as I watched the game from the edge of my sofa. As I sat there, agog and agape at this decidedly un-metaphysical drama (the fourth official informs the referee of the infringement, who, after some agonized decision-making, pulls out the red card with a histrionic flourish), I shuddered at the fact that this supposedly shocking act of aggression had occurred in the Olympiastadion, the stadium built by Hitler’s Nazi regime to host the 1936 Olympic Games.

In 2022 the World Cup will take place in the exceedingly hot state of Qatar. Qatar ranks fifth in the world according to a recent report on modern-day slavery (it is currently 85th in FIFA’s football rankings). Foreign workers comprise some 88% of Qatar’s population of 2.6 million (the number seems to shift like the desert sands surrounding it). Qatar is reportedly spending $500 million per week on World Cup-related projects. This mind-bogglingly costly building boom is materialising, mirage-like, through the labour of an army of migrant workers who work inhumanly long hours, often in scorching heat, for inhumanly low pay (as little as $0.56 per hour in 2014), while living in squalid, overcrowded dormitories. They are forbidden from unionizing, have their passports taken away and cannot leave the country when they want. Many paid thousands of dollars just to get to Qatar. Any who complain about their conditions run the risk of being summarily sacked. According to a 2013 report by the International Trade Unions Confederation, 1,239 workers died while working on construction projects. No one knows the real number because reliable statistics are few and far between, partly because hardly anyone save a few underfunded NGOs gives a shit, and partly because Qatar clearly considers these people subhuman and does not gather data concerning their well-being. A 2016 report by Amnesty International accused both FIFA (in no way connected to fyfas) and Qatar of ongoing indifference to the appalling treatment and systematic abuse of workers. Qatar has recently enacted new legislation to improve the conditions of workers but it is disgusting that a country with such intimate and far-reaching ties to the West has to be forced into providing minimal legal protection for migrant workers simply to put itself in a good light while it is briefly under the spotlights of the retractable roofs of its slave-built stadia. But please forgive my ranting, I am a little poorly today, I have a build-up of catarrh clogging my nose and throat. This is my way of expectorating it.

The Qatar Investment Authority, a national wealth fund set up in 2005, has been busily investing all around the world (presumably, in part, to help fund the footie). It owns Paris Saint-Germain football club, 13% of Barclays, 17% of Volkswagen; it has a majority stake in Sainsbury’s, a minority stake in Royal Dutch Shell, and owns Harrods outright. The QIA’s property portfolio in London is so extensive that it has arguably contributed to the hideously inflated property prices in the city (it owns 95% of the Shard, that faux-iconic symbol for our times; Mayfair (the most coveted property in the UK version of the board game Monopoly ®) is now referred to as Qatari Corner). It even has a stake in my once beloved Camden Market. The list is too long and the stakes, subsidiaries and holding companies involved are too convoluted for a readily distracted brain like mine. But one investment that did catch my eye was the QIA’s 9% share in Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss multinational commodity, trading and mining company (or in Glencore’s execrable choice of words, “a vertically integrated, natural resource commodities producer and trader”).

Glencore has just acquired full control of Mutanda Mining, a copper producer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and raised its stake in Katanga Mining, which also operates in Congo, to 83.33%.

Just as I like to call a spade a spade, I will call Congo Congo since there is nothing remotely democratic about that country (not to be confused with the neighbouring Republic of the Congo or the kingdom of Kongo). Congo is tied for sixth place in the 2016 Global Slavery Index (it currently ranks 76th in FIFA’s football rankings). The index has been criticised for using flawed data but according to a rigorous analysis by the Human Trafficking Center: “The Global Slavery Index provides a basis to assess the problem of forced labor and modern day slavery.” (Russell Crowe, a man who knows a thing or two about slavery, launched the latest Global Slavery Index at an event in London.)

It is impossible to overstate the misery inflicted on Congo (for an excellent overview read Dan Snow’s chirpily indignant piece for the BBC). With its extraordinary mineral wealth, this vast country (250 ethnic groups, 700 local languages and dialects) should be an economic powerhouse but it has yet to recover its demographic (much less democratic) equanimity after hundreds of years of foreign exploitation and intervention; first by the Portuguese who exported millions of slaves from the gateway kingdom of Kongo (an estimated four million, many of whom were shipped to the British colonies, many of whom died en route); then by Belgium, who brutally forced locals to extract the rubber and copper that fuelled the European Industrial Revolution (slackers were beaten, troublemakers had hands hacked off); then by the home-grown dictator Joseph Mobutu who was helped to power by the ubiquitous CIA. Like many of the dictators backed by the CIA, Mobutu backfired spectacularly. He (and his cronies) embezzled billions of dollars, contributed to the enduring stereotype of the asinine-leonine African despot, and set the stage for future ethno-economic calamity (though at least Mobutu nominally Africanized Congo in an attempt to disinherit the brutality of colonial rule). Two wars followed Mobutu’s death in 1997 in quick succession, the second of which lasted from 1998 – 2003 and which is sometimes referred to as the Great African War (nine countries were involved). The UN estimates that 5 million people, mainly civilians, have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998 from war and disease. The east of the country remains riven with conflict; there are an estimated 60 armed groups in circulation; 40% of women in the region are thought to have been sexually abused; 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5; the average life expectancy for men is 48. The UN has spent $1 billion dollars keeping the fragile piece while hundreds of billions (trillions? anyone?) of dollars have flowed out of the country, in the rough, via cobalt (used for the lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones), cadmium, gold, diamonds, copper, uranium and oil.

A 2016 Amnesty report tried to trace the cobalt supply chain from source to the smartphone in your hands. It is sketchy, maybe libellous, but hell, at least someone is bothering, right? They found a possible connection: traders buy cobalt and sell it on to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt). They process the cobalt before selling it to three battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. In turn, they sell to battery makers who claim to supply technology and car companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Daimler and Volkswagen.

Amnesty and Afrewatch contacted the 16 multinationals believed to be connected with Huayou Cobalt. One company “admitted the connection”. Four said they were “unable to say.” Five of the companies denied any connection (there is evidence to the contrary), and six said they were “launching investigations”.

There are an alleged 40,000 children working in the mines (many of which are “artisanal”, exempting them from Congo’s Mining Code and Regulations). Workers risk death and face abuse for the grand sum of $2 per day. Health problems are common. Half of the kids interviewed said they had been beaten for not working fast enough. All so China can steam ahead to superpowerdom. All so multinational companies and anonymous investors can maximise their profits to fuel this Victorian-style nightmare that history was supposed to have put to bed by now. All so you can swipe right.

I don’t have a smartphone. Not because I made a conscious, ethical choice. But because I do not want to be continuously reminded of the fact that I never get any emails. Because I do not want to scratch, by way of swiping, at the perpetual itch of my loneliness. People look at my simple push-button phone with pity, as though I have caught poverty, or come down with a bout of hardship. I made a conscious choice not to get a smartphone because I do not want to be electronically connected to this world any more than I have to be.

The Amnesty report into the conditions of the mines in Congo made a few headlines that entered the collective consciousness with all the consequentiality of a pebble tossed into an ocean. Africa, children, poverty, famine; for most over-privileged Westerners these things are a continuation of the heart of darkness haunting us, of the ever-lurking l’Afrique fantôme. I wager that most people, as they excitedly and insatiably swipe away, have no idea how responsible the West was and continues to be for the systemised misery in Africa. I have always said that America is the unfettered Id of the world. Africa, by that analogy, is our wretched heart.

A famous footballer (of North African descent) headbutts a thuggish Italian player in the final of a World Cup. It is an event of such magnitude that it overshadows the game itself. Could it be the heart of darkness striking back against the war on terror? The act is clumsily dissected in a poorly performed and inconclusive postmortem. But it enters infamy. It inspires an “epic” sculpture. It becomes sporty shorthand for a clash of values, ideals and norms in an overheated Nazi-built stadium.

While “researching” this text (I google and hope for the best, algorhythmically speaking) I came across an excellent (if a little stylistically pedestrian) paper by Yasmin Jiwani entitled Sports as a Civilizing Mission: Zinedine Zidane and the Infamous Head-Butt (interesting thought: British English did away with the hyphen in headbutt – does that mean our heads and their butts are more intimately linked?).

Jiwani goes about her analysis with impressive rigour. She draws from a corpus of 367 English and French-language news stories found through a Factiva database search that cover the three months directly following the headbutt. Luckily, the story has a happy ending. As Jiwani explains: “…media framing of the Zidane head-butt invoked Orientalist notions of the Muslim Other, but in so doing, they also resonated with the French civility of patriarchal chivalry thereby facilitating Zidane’s reinstatement as an ambassador of a multi-ethnic integrated France.” In other words, France resumed its love affair with Zizou after his little crime of passion.

I am not a violent person but I found Zidane’s headbutt elegantly executed (like the two surprise headers he scored to help France win the 1998 World Cup). But I do not want to succumb to arguing the rights and wrongs of it because that is the whole point of sport. It reduces right and wrong to nimble tonguework and tribal allegiances while a whole world of misery, exploitation and servitude goes largely unreported on. Zidane’s headbutt shocked the world. He momentarily shattered the (bubble-like) illusion engulfing the Olympiastadion. But  at least he confronted personal abuse head on. His symbolic act of violence was almost endearingly harmless in contrast with the way the West has furtively looted Africa’s resources, both mineral and human (including, incidentally, its footballing talent).



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