I mentioned ‘The Travels of Ibn Battutah’ in the morning. The other Berber I hinted at, was Zinedine Zidane. Only a microscopic minority of Indians might know that he has Berber blood. In fact, many Indians do not even know that there are a people known as the Imazighen or Berber. For them, all of North Africa and West Asia is inhabited by Arabs. The first time I heard of them was when I read ‘A History of the Arab Peoples’ by Albert Hourani. That Turks, Persians, Kurds and Berbers had as much of a role in moulding the course of Islam and the culture of the Middle East, as the Arabs, came as a surprise.

‘Zidane’ sounds alien to Anglophone Indians in the same way that ‘Lizarazu’, ‘Deschamps’,  or ‘Barthez’ do. His appearance and bearing (reminiscent of a Christian monk) added to the perception. I loved the way he played, and so did most of my friends (except for those who imbibed the English Premiere League’s obsession for long balls and frantic running). A play-maker, Zidane could create time and space on the pitch where none seemed to exist. His demeanor was unlike that of any footballer I had seen. Calm, almost meditative. His heroics in the 1998 FIFA World Cup earned him cult status in India.

He reminds me of players like Roger Federer (tennis) and Rahul Dravid (cricket) who were not only great sportsmen but also excellent role models. I expected him to help the French national team lift another World Cup trophy in 2006. But Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon prevented his second attempt on goal. Out of the blue, during extra time, he head-butted Marco Matterazi to be sent off the pitch. That most un-Zidane outburst cost France the match. For months afterwards, the ‘Headbutt’ was discussed and bemoaned. Adel Abdessemed, another Frenchman of Berber ancestry, captured that moment of madness in the form of a statue.

Zidane remains a favourite. With the rising popularity of Spanish football, and the emergence of Madrid and Barcelona as high profile clubs in the Indian sports entertainment business, he is back as the subject of conversations. This time as the manager of Real. He led them to a record-breaking spree of 16 La Liga victories, in 2015-2016. In a twist of fate, the man he felled, Matterazi, had joined Chennaiyan FC (of the Indian Super League) as player-manager in 2014. Chennaiyan represents the city of Chennai in South India. Zidane might not have spent as much time as Ibn Battutah did in the subcontinent but he did have somebody to remind Indian fans of his footballing days.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and credited to Mohan.