For four out of the five years I was a student, I played inter-collegiate football, and, should I go back to do a doctorate, the chances are I will again: despite not really being very good, I quite enjoy it. Due to a fatal lack of skill and fitness and a fortuitous gangliness, I play in goal, so I don't tend to get involved in very much of the on-pitch banter which seems to happen at every level of football. Still, I've sworn at people who went into challenges with me with their feet high or elbows flailing; I've abusively mocked a centre-forward as I took a touch round them and cleared; I've sarcastically clapped referees, and been booked for it; I've been repeatedly called a pederast; I've been warned that if I swear at players on my own side again, I'll be sent off, and I've been a part of a team which was, admittedly by people who lacked the authority to do so, kicked out of a league for persistent indiscipline.
Being kicked out for persistent indiscipline was, despite the formal injustice of it being done by people who did not properly have the power to do so, perhaps not unreasonable: in the last match of the season, we played a very bad-tempered and incredibly poorly refereed game against a niggly and abusive side, who had niggled and abused their way to a victory earlier in these season, which ended with two of our players sent off and resulted in a brawl as we walked off. We'd already had a player banned for four matches for refusing to leave the pitch after being sent off. The standard of the refereeing, although genuinely appalling, was at best a mitigating factor, not an excuse, and was only really mitigating because it was so clearly biased: one of the sendings-off was a straight red for singing at the referee, whilst their second and winning goal came from a foul on the keeper which led to me coming on, only to be greeted by an unpunished elbow to the face when coming for a cross.
Zidane can call on none of this mitigation. So far as I could see, the refereeing was pretty good, and the game, other than his headbutt, was hardly particularly bad-tempered. The best he can hope for is that Materazzi said something that, even in the fairly coarse world of on-field jibes, was genuinely unacceptable, but that is not in the league of a game-long conspiracy by the other side and the referee to kick, insult and rile you into a collective loss of your temper, and neither is going on television to say that you'd do it again if you had the chance the same as accepting your ban from the league with reasonably good grace.
Explaining the fairly common decision to vindicate Zidane is hardly difficult, and does not have to rely solely on morally dubious motivations. Zidane, in his pomp, is undeniably a better player than Materazzi, and even more so undeniably a better player to watch. That slaloming run and drilled finish against Spain in the last sixteen or the effortless close control, flicking the ball around and away from two or three Brazilians in the quarter-final is what we would like to remember of a player who, at his best, approached the sublime, rather than a deliberate and quite unashamed act of violence. The pressures of a particularly appealling narrative of recovery to a final triumph, both individually and as a kind of avatar for the French side as a whole, are also towards the suppression of aspects of Zidane's character which do not fit into that structure of redemption.
There are, however, as Jarndyce points out, distinctly distasteful tones to the absolution of a clear act of violence and the shifting of the blame onto Materazzi on the basis of what he must have said, even though probably only Materazzi and Zidane know what Materazzi said, and both have good reason to misrepresent it. Maybe part of it is just doing what needs to be done to sustain the sense of a final, redmeptive triumph after the disappointments of the last two major competitions for the French, and Zidane's slide into mediocrity at Real Madrid, a triumph of course already denied by actual events and so already necessarily deceptive. More of it, though, does seem to be to do with how easy it is to make Italians, and particularly Italians who had a single, almost comically bad season at an almost comically bad English club, into a kind of pantomime villian: the peasant cunning, subverting the virtuous, the true believers, with time-honoured underhand tactics, so that they leap to the defence of the fabric that sustains that virtue, in a regrettable, but nonetheless acceptable, fashion.
Personally, I would not be particularly surprised if Materazzi did use some racial slur or other to incite Zidane. Plenty of ancedotal evidence - Calderoli's comments, attributing the French defeat to being a team made up of "blacks, Islamists, and Communists", Tim Parks' account, and worrying attempts at justification, of Verona's curva sud making monkey noises at black players on opposing teams - indicates that Italian society probably is more openly racist than is commonly acceptable in Northern Europe, typically longer a destination, rather than a starting point, for migration. However, not being particularly surprised if x is not the same as knowing that x, and neither is one society being more openly racist than some others the same as all of its members being more openly racist than the all members of the others. Further, even these four things were the same, the fact would remain that Zidane starting walking away, thought better of leaving it be, and headbutted Materazzi, while Materazzi merely had a few words in Zidane's ear. The disproportion is clear.
Anti-Italian prejudice doubtless has a number of roots, but, for Northern Europeans, Catholicism, with its incense, superstition, miracles and air of polytheism, doubtlessly plays a part. Italy, for early modern Britons at least, seems to have functioned as an exotic other: think how many of Shakespeare's plays, especially those involving gender-bending, are set in Italy, and the recurring trope in Restoration drama of endemic moral and political corruption in the priest-ridden Mediterreanan fringe of Europe. Even Parks' exasperation at the open reliance on ritual, on loyalties half-concealed from a properly public gaze, is clear in his autobiographical comedies of cultural confusion, and Tobias Jones' 'The Dark Heart of Italy' reeks of it. It's a kind of Orientalism, really.
In fact, the comparison can be made more specific, I think. No-one would deny, surely, that kidnapping soldiers and holding them to ransom against the release of various political prisoners is the kind of act that would ideally be condemned rather than condoned, just as no-one would deny that some Palestinian and Arab organisations hold and voice some rather unpleasant views about Jews. People do, however, struggle to condemn the use of bombing as a technique of collective punishment. A crime is greeted by a greater crime, and we hold our hands and say, 'what can be done?', excusing the disproportion of the response by reference to the barbarism, the residence in the hinterlands beyond reason, almost beyond humanity, of those on whom it falls. Materazzi may well be a racist and was once inept in our presence and so he, in his small way, does not deserve the full protection of the rules of the game, while Palestinians and the Lebanese are, well, beyond the pale, homo sacer, undeserving of the protection even of the basic norms of human existence, for the sins of their fellows.