13 07 06

The mask of the white death or: What Materazzi really said to Zidane

Klaus Neundlinger

So many colours we could see during the soccer world championship! Colours representing nations, and yet not only in the sense of the “national colours” that compose the banners of the participating countries. The representative colours refer also to the dress of the teams, and for practical reasons every team has to have more than one type of dress, being the colours of the adversary unpredictably various. In order to be able to distinguish the teams well, they have to wear contrasting dresses. Slightly differences in symbolic reference can hence become big differences in terms of visibility. That is, indeed, a complicated matter of fact, so I will take an example to explain and illustrate it: In the final, two teams opposed each other on the base of a slight difference in the spectrum: “les bleus” vs. “gli azzurri”. We had two types of blue playing against each other. The French team players, for this reason, had to wear their white dresses, while the Italians could keep their beloved sky-blue shirts. As you all know, the most interesting event of the final was the foul committed by one of the white-dressed players, Zinedine Zidane, against the Italian defender Materazzi. We probably will remember the scene for all of our lifetime, because it was repeated in television so many times during the days after the final. What we probably will never know for sure is what Materazzi really said to Zidane in order to provoke such a cruel reaction. We can only trust one of the two testimonies, either that of Zidane or that of Materazzi.

Does colour have anything to do with this event? I’d say yes, in more than one sense. On one hand, we have the problem of colour related to the national team of France. Many of the French players are migrants or sons of migrants. The colour of their skin is a visible sign of the colonial history, but also of the present situation in France, where the “burs”, the migrants living in the banlieues, the suburbs, are struggling with their living conditions, the lack of possibilities inside the French society and the exclusion that is still going on. Football is this kind of “colourful”, oscillating instrument that on one hand continues to transport, provoke and organize racism and on the other hand can be able to foster reflection and activism in favour of the fight against racism. Lilian Thuram, the “brain” of the French defence and probably the best player in the final, often deconstructs the colonial continuity in the behaviour of many fans. During the world championship he reacted to a statement by the extreme right politician Le Pen who had complained that there were too many “coloured” players in the team and not enough “real French”. Thuram said that the national team truly represents France because the multi-ethnicity of the country cannot any more be denied.

This should not be mixed up with the fact that there is, of course, no equality on base of the multi-ethnicity. What Thuram points out is that neither the colonial history, neither the reality of European societies with (diverse) migration systems, settings and histories can be discussed by denying the multi-colour reality. If we see a football match, we prefer to have two well distinct kinds of team-dresses; we want to see the blue team playing against the sky-blue team, but not the blue dresses against the sky-blue dresses. And so we have to go further distinguishing other matters of fact that might be able to get lost, being “overpainted” by the wrong colour. Three days after the victory of the Italian football team, the media presented the latest statistics concerning the accidents on the workplace. In Italy having one oft the best labour-laws in the world (the Statuto dei lavoratori, written in 1970) there are more than 900.000 accidents of this kind in a year. And there are still more than 1.200 people who die while they are working. In Italy, this kind of death is called morte bianca, “white death”. Although Italy has far less than 5 % migrant population, almost 10 % of the casualties in 2005 were migrant workers. There aren’t so many politicians who would complain about the fact that there are “too many” migrants among the “white dead”. Nevertheless, it is not so difficult to guess why the migrant workers are over-represented in these statistics. Since many of them do not have regular documents, they have to accept harmful working conditions and cannot defend themselves against potential dangers. So the “white death” seems to be less “white” than the expression makes us believe. Neither it can be connected primarily with “white collar workers” or white middle class industrial workers, nor can it be identified with a generally unexplainable circumstance, with something that goes beyond our capacity of understanding and analysis. Already in the 1960s, when thousands and thousands of people died in the factories because of the lack of security measures and the inhuman production-rhythms, most of the victims were workers that had migrated from southern to northern Italy (at that time, there was a lot of racism against the “terroni”, the people coming from the south that were considered lazy, without culture and potential criminals). The history of “industrial violence” in this sense can be reconstructed without leaving any blank (“white”) spaces. Causes, structure and development of this sinister history can be well identified.

As I said, we will never know exactly what Materazzi said to Zidane, and whatever he may have said, Zidane’s violent reaction will not be justified by that. As you could say, using an idiomatic expression, Zizou’s mind probably “went blank”. Nevertheless, what must not happen is that the visibility of the violent gesture gets a kind of symbol and erases our capacity of distinction regarding all the nuances that compose the reality of violence as such.

We should not forget that the working conditions in the industrial and construction sectors are worsening because of the effects of delocalisation, deindustrialisation and the attempt to undermine the achievements of the labour movement. Trade Unions do not try to develop political strategies in order to fight against the worsening of the working conditions for migrant workers, women and other groups that are not protected by the national labour laws. In the end, they have been always hostile towards the non-representative labour subject: non-white, non-male, … so they keep removing the coloured history of labour-force. 

Ourselves instead, we will keep reading lips in order to decifer the masque of the white death. – By the way, this will be one of the central disciplines that are taught at the Academy of Breadless Arts. Subscribe!

Klaus Neundlinger