- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The day after he head-butted his way into red-card infamy, France’s Zinedine Zidane was announced as the winner of the Golden Ball award, which goes to the top player in the World Cup. Pardon me, but isn’t that a little like giving a Tony to John Wilkes Booth?

Zidane’s ramming of Marco Materazzi not only marred the frenzied final, won by Italy on penalty kicks, it also served as an unwelcome reminder that this was the most penalty-filled Cup ever. No fewer than 28 players — more than two full teams — were booted out of matches, breaking the previous record by six.

Worse, it came in what may well be the Z-Man’s final appearance on the pitch. As sports farewells go, this one ranks right up there with Rafael Palmeiro’s.

It wasn’t the first such episode in the competition, either. While flopping received much of the attention, head-butting definitely had its moments. Strangely, however, the sentence for the crime differed from one perpetrator to the next.

When the cranium of Portugal’s Luis Figo collided with Dutchman Mark van Bommel, for instance, Figo received only a yellow card and was able to play in the quarterfinals against England. Maybe we could get a ruling from the Supreme Court on this — though we’d be running the risk of the red card being declared a “cruel and unusual punishment.”

There was even an incident of a fake head-butting — Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo doing the faking as he walked past England’s Wayne Rooney to take his position at the start of the match. Nothing was meant by it, though. The two, after all, are teammates on Manchester United.

We’re used to people being head-butted in other sports, particularly boxing. Let’s face it, it’s hard to go toe-to-toe with your foe without eventually knocking noggins. Why, earlier this year, a head-butt decided the WBA junior middleweight elimination bout between Shane Mosley and Fernando Vargas.

At least, that’s what Vargas says. He claims Moseley butted him in the left eye, causing it to swell shut. Mosley disputes the account but was sporting enough to give Vargas a rematch — scheduled for Saturday in Las Vegas. Hopefully, the winner will be determined by fists, not foreheads.

Hockey also features the occasional meeting of minds, so to speak. (See Doug Gilmour’s conking of the Capitals’ Enrico Ciccone in 1993 — in the preseason, no less.) In fact, the NHL rulebook spells out specific penalties for head-butting. They range from a double minor (for attempting a head-butt) to a match penalty (for inflicting an injury). (What, no 15 minutes in a locked room with Dave Schultz?)

And who can forget the head-butt Nene laid on Michael Olowokandi in an NBA game a couple of seasons ago? Well, actually, Olowokandi probably can. The Candy Man, I’m betting, is still a little fuzzy on the events of that night.

Basketball has even given us an accidental head-butt. I’m referring to the time Bob Knight, then at Indiana, bent over to talk to a player on the bench and, when the player looked up, unintentionally smacked heads with him. (Note: This is not to be confused with the time Knight grabbed a player by the neck and appeared to cut off his air supply.)

Anyway, now head-butting has spread to soccer — and (quelle horreur!) to France. Who knows? Maybe it’s a Freedom Fries Thing; maybe the country has a lot of pent-up hostility. Zidane’s is, after all, hardly an isolated case. A year ago, in a World Cup qualifier against Israel, French star David Trezeguet was ejected for head-butting in retaliation for a late tackle. The absence of Trezeguet — France had to continue with 10 men — enabled the Israelis to tie the match.

Members of France’s rugby team also have been guilty of using their heads a bit too much. Benoit Baby (yes, that’s his real name) drew a four-week suspension last year for butting the captain of the Irish squad, and Olivier Magne was hit with a three-week ban in 2000 for similar roughhousing at the expense of a Scottish player. There’s no telling where it will go from here. Perhaps the Spurs’ Tony Parker will go billy goat on Kobe Bryant.

You’ll be pleased to know, by the way, that the folks at Brute athletic equipment have developed a “head-butt pad” to guard against these attacks. The cost is $7.99, but they’ll knock it down to $6.79 if you buy a dozen or more and outfit your entire team. Or you can just spend the money on smelling salts and maximum-strength Anacin. It’s up to you.

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