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Demigod Suicide

PARIS -- Here is one of the greatest players of all time, a legend, a myth for the entire planet, and universally acclaimed. Here is a champion who, in front of two billion people, was putting the final touches on one of the most extraordinary sagas in soccer's history.

Here is a man of providence, a savior, who was sought out, like Achilles in his tent of grudge and rage, because he was believed to be the only one who could avert his countrymen's fated decline. Better yet, he's a super-Achilles who -- unlike Homer's -- did not wait for an Agamemnon (in the guise of coach Raymond Domenech) to come begging him to re-enlist; rather, he decided himself, spontaneously, after having "heard" a voice calling him, to come back from his Spanish exile and -- putting his luminous armor back on, and flanked by his faithful Myrmidons (Makelele, Vieira, Thuram) -- reverse the new Achaeans' ill fortune and allow them to successfully pull together.

And then this valiant knight who is a hair's breadth from victory and just minutes from the end of a historic match (and of a career that will carry him into the Pantheon of stadium-gods after Pelé, Platini and Maradona); this giant who, like the Titans of the ancient world, has known Glory, then Exile, then Return and Redemption; this redeemer, this blue angel dressed in white, who had only the very last steps to scale to enter Olympus for good, commits a crazy incomprehensible act that amounts to disqualification from the soccer ritual -- the final image of him that will go down in history and, in lieu of apotheosis, will cast him into hell.

No one knows, as I write, what actually happened on the field of Berlin's Olympic Stadium.

No one knows what the Italian, Marco Materazzi, did or said (in the 111th minute of a match that this hero had dominated with all his grace) to reawaken in him those old demons of a kid from the streets of Marseilles, the very demons that soccer's code of honor, its ethic, its aesthetic, are made to quell.

Even if we knew why; even if we knew for certain that the Italian insulted him, or cursed his mother, father, brothers, sister; even if we got hold of the black box of those 20 seconds that saw the champion destroy in a flash his legend that is a mix of secret king, a Dostoyevskian sweet man, the ideal Beur son-in-law, future mayor of Marseilles and, last but not least, the charismatic captain leading his troops to consecration; even if we knew the whole story, this suicide would be as all ordinary suicides are; no reason in the world explains the desperate act of a man -- no provocation, no nasty remark, will ever tell us why the planetary icon that Zinedine Zidane had become, a man more admired than the Pope, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela put together, a demigod, a chosen one, this great priest-by-consensus of the new religion and the new empire in the making, chose to explode right there, rather than wait a few minutes to settle the quarrel on the sidelines.

No. The truth is that it is perhaps not so easy to stay in the skin of an icon, demigod, hero, legend.

The only plausible explanation for so bizarrely scuttling everything -- which, remember, let a lot of time go by (the 20 long seconds following the Italian Machiavelli's undoubtedly calculated outrage) in order to concentrate itself into the outburst of a player who was out of breath and stupidly losing control of his nerves -- the only explanation is that there was in this man a kind of recoil, an ultimate inner revolt, against the living parabola, the stupid statue, the beatified monument, that the era had transformed him into over these past few months.

The man's insurrection against the saint. A refusal of the halo that had been put on his head and that he then, quite logically, pulverized with a head-butt, as though saying: I am a living being not a fetish; a man of flesh and blood and passion, not this idiotic empty hologram, this guru, this universal psychoanalyst, natural child of Abbé Pierre and Sister Emanuelle, which soccer-mania was trying to turn me into.

It was as though he were repeating, in parody, the title of one of the very great books of the last century, before the triumph of this liturgy of the body, performance and commodity: Ecce Homo, This is a Man. Yes, a man, a true man, not one of these absurd monsters or synthetic stars who are made by the money of brand names in combination with the sighs of the globalized crowd.

Achilles had his heel. Zidane will have had his -- this magnificent and rebellious head that brought him, suddenly, back into the ranks of his human brothers.

Mr. Lévy is the author of "American Vertigo" (Random House, 2006). This piece was translated from the original French by Hélène Brenkman.

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