| Italy’s Marco Materazzi falls as he is head-butted by Zidane. (Reuters)
July 10: At half-time, soccer journalists had voted him the best player of the tournament.
Another hour on the pitch and Zinedine Yazid Zidane performed a stunning act with his head that left the world in a daze. Marco Materazzi evidently so.
And yet. France was mounting wave after wave of attack on the Italian goal, though only about 10 minutes of extra-time were left. Beyond that lay the penalty shootout. No one kills goalkeepers more coolly than Zidane, as he had shown in this match itself.
Even beyond that lay Pele, the star of two World Cup-winning squads. Zidane was within touching distance and then he blew it.
“How could that happen to a man like you'” French newspaper L’Equipe expressed the world’s incomprehension most succinctly.
A senseless, almost surreal act of self-destruction from a man who has played with such elegance that the Fifa boss compared him to good French wine.
TV replays showed Materazzi mutter something to Zidane who was walking away but came back to fell the Italian with a head-butt. Perhaps it was an insult to his manhood. More likely, a racist slur.
Zidane has yet offered no explanation. “He told me Materazzi said something very serious but he wouldn’t tell me what,” his agent Alain Migliaccio said. “He’ll talk about it in the next couple of days.”
When he does, it will be interesting to see what Fifa does with Materazzi. This Cup was about fighting racism.
Some French sources said the Italian had insulted Zidane’s mother; a tabloid said he had tweaked Zidane’s nipple. Anti-racism group SOS Racism claimed Materazzi had called the son of Algerian immigrants a “dirty terrorist” 'a charge the Italian denies.
Asked if Zidane had apologised to teammates, Jean Alain Boumsong, one of them, said: “Yes, yes, of course. He is very disappointed.”
If Zidane had indeed exploded at a racist slur, his act would carry a certain symbolism for a divided French society. For “Zizou” was the emblem of a multicultural France, ripped apart by last year’s race riots by youths of Arab origin.
Banned from the medal ceremony because of the red card, Zidane was sitting quietly in the locker room when the French soccer boss met him.
Jean Pierre Escalettes said he shook Zidane’s hand to thank him for his career. The two men didn’t speak. “He is unhappy,” Escalettes said. “We have to leave him alone. I have nothing to ask him.”
Zidane’s genius had always had a dark side: this was his third World Cup red card. Unsmiling, his intensity broken only by beads of sweat, a storm appears to brew all the time under the dark brows, in the deep-set eyes on either side of the hawk nose.
L’Equipe asked: “It was your last image as a soccer player. What do we tell our children and all those for whom you were a living example'”
Possibly it should have asked “what do we tell the parents” who relate to the age of Pele, the perfect genius of the sixties. Maradona played his football almost as well, but he was anything but perfect, in on- and off-field behaviour.
Nor is Zidane. Because the age is such. And the children will understand.