Zidane's headbutt: a case of fear of failure or success?

For many soccer fans, the image below may be one of the most iconic moments ever in the sport's long and illustrious history. It happened 14 years ago, on a warm July evening in Berlin during the biggest game of them all, the FIFA World Cup Final. Zinedine Zidane (white shirt), one of the greatest players ever, did the unthinkable. The game is deep into overtime, with only 10 minutes left on the clock. Italy and France have been locked into an equal score for the past 80 minutes and nothing seems to be changing about this 1-1 scoreline. Zidane is walking away from a play when out of seemingly nothing, he stops, turns around and headbutts Marco Materazzi (blue shirt) in his chest. Zidane immediately gets expelled from the game with a red card, and ultimately, France loses the World Cup Final after penalties. As a young fan, I had never seen anything like it, and I have never seen anything like it since. This story has transformed this game into one of the most remarkable games of soccer ever, but the real question is: why did Zidane do it?

The general explanation of the incident revolves around Materazzi verbally provoking Zidane. Supposedly, the Italian had said something about the Frenchman's mother and sister. When you look at a video of the incident, you can indeed see that Materazzi is talking to Zidane. It was revealed much later (about 10 years later in fact) that Marco had not said something about Zinedine's mother but merely about his sister, like that makes a difference. However, I think it is a bit too simplistic to reduce the explanation of this altercation between two veteran professional athletes to a simple case of provocation, something that happens all the time in professional sports. In order for an insult like this to result in a headbutt, you have to look at the circumstances in which it happened.

The Fifa World Cup Trophy

The most obvious and vital circumstance to keep in mind is the importance of the game. As I mentioned before, this is the most important soccer game in the world. Not only is it only played once every 4 years, it also decides which country can crown themselves world champion in the most popular sport in the world (a feat that has only been achieved by a total of 7 countries). The latest instalment of the world cup final was watched by over 3.5 billion people, over half the world's population aged 4 and older. It cannot be understated how much pressure there must be on the players, especially on the captain of the French national team and best player in the world at the time: Zidane. He is in charge of carrying the national pride of France in front on half the world. The next important factor is when during the game the incident happened, and what the score was. The game was in a deadlock and in 10 minutes would be decided by penalty kick shootout. Take a guess who was supposed to take the deciding kick in that shootout?

It is fair to say that Zidane is under immense pressure, but maybe not in the way that you might think. Try to put yourself in his shoes: you walk up to the ball which is 11 meters away from the goal. It is just between you and the goalie now. If you score, you become a legend, a world cup winner, a national hero. However, if you miss, you will have let an entire country down or worse, you could make a fool of yourself in front of half the world. Most of us, would be terrified to miss the shot. This is the best player in the world though, someone who has shot and scored that exact shot countless times in his life, someone who has won everything there is to win. I don't think Zidane would be scared to miss the ball, I think he would be scared to score it...


There is a phenomenon called fear of success, and it is a relatively unknown part of sport psychology and mental functioning. Luckily, significant research has gone into defining and understanding this topic. Fear of success is defined as: avoiding and sometimes even sabotaging good performances in order to not have to deal with the consequences of winning/success. This might seem counterintuitive, because for most of us, winning is purely a good thing. Personally, I enjoy winning my Monday night recreational volleyball game. However, when winning can have a significant and lasting influence on your relationships, expectations and the way you can live your life, it might not always seem to great to win and this negative expectation following success is fear of success. Research has identified 5 possible reasons, or perceived negative consequence of winning, (Andre & Metzler, 2011) why someone would prevent themselves from having success:

1. Fear of losing motivation

Imagine an athlete that is purely driven by his or her desire to reach the ultimate goal, qualifying for the olympics. That one goal is the sole source of motivation for this athlete. What happens to that athlete's motivation if that goal is reached? Athletes can become scared of losing their primary motivator and engage in behaviour that avoids reaching their final goal so their source of motivation stays intact.

2. Fear of overstating success

Athletes can be afraid of being defined solely and superficially by their success. Imagine winning an olympic gold medal, but afterwards your entire person and character is reduced to just that, an olympic gold medalist. People stop paying attention to the person you are and solely focus on that one achievement, depriving you from normal and meaningful relationships with others.

3. Fear of increasing expectations

This fear revolves around athletes believing that if they would be successful, they would then be expected to perform at or above that level all the time. In essence, it would shift the performance expectation to be much higher which can lead to performance anxiety. If an athlete is afraid of this, they might prevent themselves from reaching the initial success.


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4. Fear of losing time

Experiencing a major success can change a lot in the life of an athlete. Increased time demands due to sponsor deals, tv appearances, fan interactions and other sources can mean that the athlete is not able to prepare and train in the way he or she would like to or have less time for family and friends. The fear of losing time revolves around an athlete engaging in fear of success behaviour to protect the way they live their day to day life.

5. Fear of experiencing social isolation

We have all heard the saying: "life is lonely at the top". Becoming successful in anything, automatically means that you are the target. All other competitors will now try to beat you (in any way possible). The fear of social isolation includes athletes believing that becoming the person to beat will lead to lower social interactions with colleagues as well as willingness of other to help and support them. On top of that, athletes might feel that people would become jealous or hostile towards them because of their success.

In my opinion, you can summarize these fear of success reasons in a fairly simple way: humans are creatures of habit, and will often do anything they can to make sure their way of living their lives will not change. So fear of success is often not about not believing you are worth it but rather about being afraid that your life might change significantly (even if it would seem to be better than it was before). This brings me back to Zinedine Zidane, and his reaction to the situation in the 110th minute of the World Cup Final. I don't think he simply lost his composure, nor do I think he did it to avoid failing at an almost imminent decisive penalty kick. I think what you can see in this scenario is an athlete engaging in fear of success. Think about the way his life would have changed if he would have scored that penalty. He would be forever known as the person who scored the penalty, and possibly nothing more (fear of overstating success). His life would change drastically, even compared to the life of an already famous soccer star, changing his day to day activities (fear of losing time).

Zidane has never really explained why he did what he did, so we can never know for sure but to me it seems way more likely that he acted out of fear of success rather than any other reason. This is further reinforced by his calm demeanour and reaction right after it happens. After his playing career, he is now rapidly becoming just as much of a phenomenon as a coach as he was as a player. Now we just wait for his last game as a coach, and see if he repeats this remarkable act.