On-field Trash

Q Everyone wants to know exactly what he said…

A: They were very serious things, very personal things.

Q About your mother and your sister?

A: Yes. They were very hard words. You hear them once and you try to move away.

But then you hear them twice, and then a third time… I am a man and some words are harder to hear than actions. I would rather have taken a blow to the face than hear that.

Soccer fans will know what the above snippet of conversation refers to. It’s just an effort to dissect an infamous moment of impulsiveness as was demonstrated by the legendary Zinedine Zidane, the former French football captain. The occasion, an important one—the finals of the World Cup—acquired a greater degree of relevance since it was also the last time Zidane was being seen on the professional soccer field. The man, loved by fans and soccer players across the world, must have dreamed of making the finals an enduring swan song, possibly with him lifting the coveted trophy. That was not to be.

A brief provocation, resulting in one of the most aggressive physical outbursts altered the course of the match once and for all. Minutes before the final game would slip into penalty shoot outs, the French maestro delivered a savage headbutt to his Italian opponent, Marco Materazzi. There was no way Zidane could have escaped a red card. As he exited the field, ignominy and a red blot on career accompanying him, French fans knew, the game could have a radically different outcome. Suffices to say, Zidane was aware of the results of his action himself. Yet, apparently, he couldn’t restrain himself. As for Materazzi, who is believed to have pushed the Frenchman to limits by making offensive remarks about his mother and sister, the desired effect—to distract Zidane in a game-altering way—was superbly achieved.

Image source: The Daily Telegraph

And that’s exactly what trash-talk or sledging in sports aims to achieve. It’s an ancient and tested tactic used to weaken the opposition psychologically. Almost all team sports make use of verbal abuses and insults in some way or the other.

I first became familiar with sledging while watching live telecasts cricket matches, the sport that makes India crazy. Cricket is to India what football is to Brazil and perhaps baseball to America. During cricketing season, every Indian corner, from polished living rooms to atmospheric bazaars sports a festive look. One would often find huddles of impassioned cricket lovers, either watching the game on television or listening to radio commentary. And just as the game itself causes waves of emotions to rise and fall, sledging between players results in tempers flaring up.

Image source: http://www.cricketnet.co.za
Cricket, slightly similar to baseball, is a contest between batsmen and bowlers. You would occasionally see a bowler making remarks at the batsman, trying to distract and provoke him. A lot of batsmen tend to retort, some look the other way, and a few really smart ones, whack the ball to the boundary at the next delivery. There’s no microphone attached to the shirts of the players, and what they say isn’t ever audible to the audience or the commentators. Much the same as what happened between Materazzi and Zidane. The only way one would learn about the actual exchange of words was to rely on the players’ version once the game was over.

So what exactly do players say to opponents to crack their psyche? Here’s a random sampling from the world of cricket sledging:

Australian wicket-keeper Rod Marsh, to English batsman Ian Botham: “So how’s your wife and my kids?” The reply “The wife’s fine, the kids are retarded”

Australian pace bowler Glenn McGrath to Zimbabwean Eddo Brandes after Brandes had played and missed at a McGrath delivery: “Oi, Brandes, why are you so f*****g fat?” to which Brandes replied: “Cos every time I f*** your wife she gives me a biscuit!” Apparently even the Australian slips were in hysterics.

In the 1980’s Ian Botham returned early from a tour of Pakistan, and on radio joked Pakistan is the sort of country to send your mother-in-law to.” Needless to say the Pakistanis did not find this amusing, and when Pakistan defeated England in the 1992 World Cup Final, Aamer Sohail told Ian Botham “Why don’t you send your mother-in-law out to play, she cannot do much worse.”

Perhaps the most famous sledge is reported to have taken place during the epic World Cup Super Six clash between Australia and South Africa. South Africa looked on course to a routine victory with Australian captain Steve Waugh at the crease and on 56. At that stage, Waugh clipped the ball in the air straight to South African fielder Herschelle Gibbs. In his haste, Gibbs dropped the ball when attempting to throw it in the air in celebration as he had not fully controlled it. As he passed him, Waugh is said to have asked Gibbs: “How does it feel to have dropped the World Cup?” Waugh carried on to make an unbeaten 120 and Australia posted an unlikely win and won the World Cup a few days later. Waugh has denied that quote, instead claiming that he said “looks like you’ve dropped the match”.

[Source: Wikipedia]

I find it somewhat unfair that while physical outbursts such as the one Zidane displayed are reason enough to penalize the player, verbal assaults, carried out repeatedly in the course of the play mostly go unheeded. This is not to condone physical attacks by the way. That’s not done, and Zidane himself admitted that, apologizing to any children watching the game. However, is it a fair deal for players to use racial slurs (Zidane has been at the receiving end of such taunts throughout his career because of his Algerian roots) or tasteless personal insults to the point of provoking the opponent to extreme physical reaction? Not in my book. A little banter here and there never harmed anyone, but insults directed at one’s family or place of origin are downright offensive and unforgivable as far as I am concerned.

Isn’t it ironical that while children are taught to cut back on swearing and verbal abuses all the time, adults get away with those same things on the sporting field? Agreed Zidane didn’t set up such a fine example for budding soccer players, but did Materazzi set a better example either?

Why expend so much energy when even a glare followed by a real smart sporting move can do the trick?

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One thought on “On-field Trash

  1. I tend to feel the same way you do about the taunting. I’ve never been that kind of player, preferring to frustrate by solid expert play. The others can do the talking. However, as some soccer playing friends of mine point out, taunting is part of the game, and if you can’t take it, then you need to do something else. Personally, I’m not disappointed that he gave the guy the head butt–he probably deserved it. But the fact that he lost his temper makes him the worst kind of teammate there can be, unreliable in tough situations.

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