Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt happened in the dying minutes of the 2006 World Cup final. Bad timing. The French had been swarming the Italian goal mouth. Buffon, the Italian keeper, looked frazzled; minutes earlier, he’d barely tipped a powerful Zidane header over the crossbar. A French goal felt imminent, inevitable, destined.
Destined, most especially, for Zidane. He’d announced his retirement weeks earlier, and this was the last match of his professional career. All that was required to make his personal story into a fairy tale was his foot on the end of a winning goal. Every remaining doubt about his standing in soccer history would give way, and the longstanding duo of inviolable soccer Gods would become a triumvirate: Pelé, Maradona, Zidane.
At tournament kickoff, bookmakers were giving the French a 7.5% chance of winning the trophy, with odds of 12/1. The team had looked a shambles in warmup matches, and Zidane, now 34 years old and losing his ascendancy in soccerland, seemed unlikely to display the old magic. But then, incredibly, mostly thanks to his heroics, France beat Spain, Brazil, and Portugal to reach the final.
At first, no-one knew what was going on, not even the commentators. The live cameras were still following the ball upfield. Play stopped. Materazzi, the Italian defender, was on the ground. Had there been a collision? Had he twisted his knee?
Finally, the images appeared on the screen, in slow motion.
TFI, “Zidane Expulsion: Thierry Gilardi” (2006)
“…Ooooo oooo Zinedine. Oh Zinedine! Not that, not that Zinedine! Not that Zinedine! Oh no! Oh no, not that! Not today, not now, not after all you’ve done… Aïe!… Oh no Zinedine… He’s going to pull out a card for Zidane. And it’s a red card! Oh no! And that’s what I’d feared. It’s appalling. It’s not possible. It can’t be contested. Even if certain things happened before, Zinedine mustn’t react. He mustn’t give him that headbutt. It’s not true! It’s his last match and the final of the World Cup! It’s not possible. Oh no, no, no, no, no. From the images we’ve seen, we can’t really reproach the Argentinian referee for pulling out the red card, obviously… It’s terrible. It’s terrible. We were living a fairy tale until now… Whatever happens, Zinedine mustn’t react… Aïe!… And it’s the last time! And it’s the last time he’s made us all dream. He’s given us so much happiness…”
Strange and touching the way Gilardi speaks to Zidane directly by his first name using the familiar “tu” form, and the way he beseeches him not to do it, as if events might still be reversed.
In those first moments, I experienced the same mental disarray. Every time the scene was replayed, I’d find myself hoping, against all reason, that Zidane had got away with it, or that I’d only imagined it.
“Zidane being sent off changed everything,” said Raymond Domenech, the French coach. “The Italian team was waiting for only one thing, and that was penalties.”
Though we will never have an exact transcript of the exchange, we know it starts with Zidane telling Materazzi to stop pulling on his jersey. Materazzi responds with something like, “Taci enculo, hai solamente cio che meriti…” (Shut it asshole, you get what you deserve…).
Zidane, smiling superciliously, asks him, “You want my jersey or something?”
“You can give it to your whore of a sister” snaps Materazzi, “Merda, merda… Yeah, your whore of a sister.” He then calls Zidane a fag (“Finocchio di Zidane!”), and tells him to go fuck himself (“Vaffanculo!”).
Materazzi justified himself with an appeal to schoolyard etiquette: “Zidane looked at me up and down with super-arrogance, dall’alto al basso,” which was a way of saying: “I had no choice but to take the man down a notch.”
Zidane made use of exactly the same defence in his first post-match interview: “Some words are more hurtful than actions,” he said, claiming the insults were a “grave provocation” that obliged him to react. “I can’t regret what I did,” he said — it was a question of honor and respect. “Je suis un homme avant tout.”
Surely there is nothing Zidane wouldn’t have heard in his career as a soccer player, especially as the star playmaker. He’d have been more viciously elbowed, hacked down, and kicked than anyone, and certainly more verbally misused (during his Juventus days, by Materazzi himself).
But no-one in France was much in the mood to dwell on Zidane’s disgrace. A post-match poll showed 61% of French people “forgave” him. Zidane’s sponsors—Adidas, Danone, Generali France, France Telecom—sent out press releases to reassure the public they would not be abandoning their best ambassador.
Already Zidane’s hangdog return to Paris had turned into a cathartic moment of national consolation, with enormous crowds chanting “Zizou” at the team bus, and President Chirac offering absolution while eluding any direct mention of the red card:
“I know that you are sad and disappointed, but what I want to tell you is that the whole country is extremely proud of you. You have honoured the country with your exceptional qualities and your fantastic fighting spirit, which was your strength in difficult times, but also in winning times.”
Only the right-wing Figaro dared condemn him, calling his headbutt “odious” and “unacceptable.”
Was it not odious, unacceptable, egocentric, childish, ugly, and unprofessional in the extreme? Many of my friends thought so, but I found myself coming to Zidane’s defense. Consider the pressure, I said. Consider all that had preceded that moment: eight years earlier, almost to the day, France had won its first ever World Cup — a 3-0 victory over Brazil. Zidane scored two of the winning goals. That night, as hundreds of thousands of people pressed onto the Champs-Élysées — the biggest national celebration since the liberation — Zidane’s face was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe next to the words: “LA VICTOIRE EST EN NOUS.” All at once, this son of Algerian immigrants, raised on a poor council estate in Marseille, became the personification of a French model of integration that worked. He was proof that a nation-state built on provincial values and solidarity could transform its citizens — black, blanc, ou beur — into heroes.
I lived in Paris through most of the Zidane years, from 1997 to 2005, and I can attest, at least anecdotally, to the ways in which Gallic gusto and gloom echoed the fortunes of the national team. Zidane, of course, was the focal point, always figured in the guise of savior. And yet no matter how excessively people projected onto him, he reciprocated.
On one occasion during Euro 2004, I was in a brasserie outside of Paris to see France versus England. I was delighted to see England, for once, show greater speed, style and elegance (I inherited my soccer passion — as one does — from my father, a Boltonian who raised me on a Man U-rich diet of Premiership matches).
As the match approached its end, the men at the bar had lost all hope (England was leading 1-0). They puffed and threw up their arms and began the familiar lament about the end of the golden era for the French team. The bartender sneered in my direction, “T’es bien content, hein Anglais!”
Then in the 90th minute, France was given a free kick from 24 metres out. There was nothing to shoot at, the angles were covered. Zidane stepped up, and well (2:30)…
With the first goal, at least half a dozen men jumped up and danced around my table singing “Allez les Bleus!” And then, with the second, three minutes later, “On a gagné!” — the same coarse melody that had been engraved into my brain by the celebrating hordes who filled the nighttime streets of Paris during those early summer weeks of 1998 and 2000 (France also won Euro 2000).
Of course, those guys were right about the golden age being over. After Euro 2004, a handful of senators from the fêted ’98 team retired from international competition, Zidane amongst them (he and two others — Makélélé and Thuram — would rejoin the team in late 2005). The national team floundered, barely qualifying for the World Cup. It looked like they would crap out in the first round, just as they had in 2002.
The team’s rubbish performance in their opening match against Switzerland, a soporific nil-nil draw that saw them booed off the field by their own fans, only added to the fin de règne mood that hung over France that spring, a time of endless debate about the economic and cultural decline of the country, close on the heels of a “No” vote on the EU Constitution and countrywide strikes and riots. When Domenech dared to suggest that his team had the potential to reach the final, he was viciously mocked by the press.
Not until their fourth match, a somewhat startling 3-1 win over Spain — with Zidane leading the way — did les Bleus show the cohesion and prowess that would carry them to the final. Still, no-one really fancied their chances against tournament favorites, Brazil, in the quarter finals.
This is when the Zidane show began. The skilled, sprightly Brazilians looked clumsy and slow whenever they entered his magnetic field. He created space that wasn’t there, calmly played the ball over and away from anyone who approached him. Sliding defenders were static pylons for him to dribble through.
His flawlessly weighted free kick gave Thierry Henry the easy tap in for the winning goal. By an accumulation of such perfect touches, he broke down the Brazilians psychologically.
L’Equipe, the French sports newspaper, called the match “one of the greatest masterpieces of [Zidane’s] life.” Behold, with appropriate soundtrack.
See how effortlessly he pushes the Brazilian midfielder, Kaka, off the ball, how delicately he pulls the ball back and controls it (0.55). By the time Kaka makes up the space that Zidane has stolen from him it is too late. Zidane has already volleyed a perfect pass (Kaka, by the way, was Ballon D’Or in 2007 — no slouch).
Zizoumania swept France, and with it a whole lot of hyperbolic rhetoric: Victory was not “in us” after all. It was in Him, Zidane the prince, Zidane the warrior, Zidane the hero touched by divinity. He alone could make the “impossible” happen (12/1 odds!), for he had climbed the purgatorial mountain out of the dark labyrinth of hellish self-doubt and lonely exile, and now he alone held the promise of national salvation: the World Cup, the Holy Grail.
I got a little wrapped up in this excitement myself. A photo went around of Zidane sitting with his teammates the morning after the Brazil match. He is drinking coffee and having a smoke. Not only was he a soccer God, he indulged small human vices! How cool! How French! I made the picture my desktop wallpaper. I was a longtime casual fan who suddenly had it bad, and I wasn’t the only one: That week, George Vecsey of the New York Times said Zidane was “the coolest man on the planet.” I went out and bought a DVD set called “Zinedine Zidane: Comme dans un rêve” and watched all three and half hours of it before the final (I can still take strange solace and delight watching those DVDs, which apart from testimonials show nothing but one perfect pass, dribble, and shot after another).
Zidane continued to follow the script in the semi-final win over Portugal, scoring the single goal. Now he had only to slay the Italian monster.
In the first half, he put France ahead on a penalty, a daring slow chip — a panenka — that made Buffon crumple to the ground. The Italians tied it up. Extra time. Zidane got himself the red card. Trezeguet missed his shot in penalty kicks. The Italians won the World Cup. Campione del mondo…
Why did Zidane allow the story to end this way? He can’t tell us. If it was defiance against the heroic narrative imposed upon him, a revolt against the deification that awaited him, then it was most certainly unconscious — a sort of involuntary suicide.
This is the “renunciation” theory put forward by, among others, Bernard Henri-Levy: “It was as though he were repeating, in parody… before the triumph of this liturgy of the body, performance and commodity: Ecce Homo, This is a Man… Achilles had his heel. Zidane will have had his—this magnificent and rebellious head that brought him, suddenly, back into the ranks of his human brothers.”
So instead of mascot to a nation, one-dimensional icon, living monument, Zidane regained his freedom to be a man amongst men.
This was my first intuition as well, but we might just as well say that some obsolete Greek God sent the Furies to drive Zidane into a sudden rage to spite him for his impossible feats. In the end, I return to the simple idea that he was tired, and when Materazzi defied him and insulted his mother, his Kabyle blood rushed to his head. The headbutt was unprofessional but it was not odious.
Looking at it now, I just think how beautifully executed it is. Straight into the sternum! Such a primal gesture. He is a furious bull.
The 2006 World Cup will fade but for that indelible, iconic moment, forever thread into our popular mythology, overlaid with hundreds of interpretations: Zidane knocking down Fidel Castro, Zidane saving Materazzi from a sniper cat, Zidane destroying the death star.
Zidane, you have me! You hate me!
- Erik Rutherford