Berlin 2006: Zizou’s Final Chapter

  • 23 Mar - 29 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Sports

If the 2006 FIFA World Cup, and the quarter-final between Brazil and France, was going to belong to one player – one extravagantly talented No.10 – it seemed clear who that would be. This, after all, had been billed as Ronaldinho’s tournament. The Brazilian had been crowned FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, had just won the UEFA Champions League with Barcelona and looked to be at the peak of his exhilarating powers.

Zinedine Zidane, on the other hand, was on the way out – and seemingly on the slide. The 34-year-old had suggested as much himself three months before, in announcing that he would retire after the World Cup. “I cannot carry on for another year,” he had said. “It’s been three years since we (Madrid) won anything, and in two of those, I’ve not played as I’ve wanted. I am not going to play any better than I have done in the past.”

The French press agreed, and there were plenty of pundits who argued that this ageing icon should be dropped; that he was no longer capable of influencing games as he once had. When Les Bleus opened their campaign in uninspiring fashion, drawing 0-0 against Switzerland and then 1-1 with Korea Republic, those critics’ knives grew sharper still.

Teaching ‘Samba’ To Brazilians
Even after France made it through the group phase, and Zidane went on to score in their 3-1 Round of 16 win over Spain, no one anticipated the masterclass that would follow in Frankfurt. Many still consider that quarter-final performance the greatest of Zizou’s entire career, with the assist he provided for Thierry Henry’s match-winning goal surrounded by several dazzling moments of skill and grace.

As the man himself told FIFA, “There was magic in the air that day out on the pitch.” The about-turn in attitudes was immediate. French newspaper La Provence immediately dubbed Zidane a “master without equal”, adding that “he was more Brazilian than the Brazilians”. That reality was reflected in the reaction of the South Americans, who were nothing if not gracious in their praise of their tormentor-in-chief. “Zidane made the difference – even more than in 1998,” observed A Seleção’s coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira. “This was probably his best performance in the last eight years.”

“Zidane was the magician in the game,” echoed Pele, an awe-struck onlooker in the Frankfurt stands. “He is a master. Over the past 10 years, there’s been no one like him. He has been the best player in the world.” The final moments of Zinedine Zidane’s international career were unlike any other. But Zidane was a player unlike any other. FIFA World Cup winner. European champion. UEFA Champions League winner. Serie A and La Liga title holder. Three-time FIFA World Player of the Year. These are just the highlights of one of the greatest players to ever grace the game.

Headbutt Heard Round The Globe
And just as the man affectionately known as ‘Zizou’ had a second global triumph within touching distance, a rush of blood to the head changed the path of history. With the Germany 2006 final between France and Italy deep into extra-time and the teams locked together at 1-1, Les Bleus’ captain inexplicably lost his trademark poise, composure and grace with an infamous moment of madness, which remains just as shocking 18 years on.

Zidane and Marco Materazzi had been in close proximity all match – naturally so for France’s playmaker and Italy’s centre-back. They came together again just inside the Italy area in the 110th minute, with Materazzi touch-tight to his opponent, an arm thrown around and across Zidane’s chest from behind. Contact, yes, but part and parcel of every game.

The ball is cleared by Gennaro Gattuso. Words are traded between the two as they jog out of the box and back towards midfield. There’s no indication of the incendiary incident which is about to occur. Zidane even has a smile on his face as the exchanges continue.

Then, in a heart-beat, everything changes. Zidane turns, plants his golden boots firmly in the turf, shoulder-width apart, lowers his head and drives it powerfully into the chest of the advancing Materazzi, who is sent tumbling backwards onto the Olympiastadion turf.

Around Zidane, the immediate aftermath of the shocking clash is strangely subdued. He stands isolated, alone. With the referee and the majority of the players following the path of the ball upfield, most did not witness what occurred. There is no melee around the Frenchman, no jostling, no attempts at retribution.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is one of the few to eventually approach Zidane, having initially sprinted from his area to remonstrate with the assistant. Gattuso follows, but even the normally combustible midfielder remains calm. Finally, the inevitable occurs, with referee Horacio Elizondo brandishing a red card on the advice of his assistants.

Zidane walks, head bowed, to the side of the pitch, leaving the arena within touching distance of the World Cup trophy that will be held aloft by Materrazzi and Co soon after, with Italy’s fourth global triumph secured via a penalty shootout.

Sun Sets On Zidane’s Glittering Career
It was to be the 108th and final cap of Zidane’s international career, and his final act as a professional footballer. Having been the guiding force in France’s 1998 triumph on home turf, Zidane already occupied legendary status for Les Bleus and it was regarded as a masterstroke from Raymond Domenech to bring him out of retirement for the tournament in Germany.

The man who began his career with Cannes before joining Bordeaux, Juventus and then Real Madrid was in imperious form to dump out holders Brazil in the quarter-finals, before another dominant display dispatched Portugal in the semi-finals.

And with seven minutes gone, the script appeared to be written that this would be Zidane’s final, with his audacious Panenka penalty deceiving Buffon and kissing the underside of the crossbar before dropping behind the line.

However, the lead was short-lived. And with Materazzi – perhaps inevitably – powering home a header to equalise in the 19th minute, the headline makers for the remainder of the evening were set in stone.

Zidane, who would go on to win the Adidas Golden Ball, with the votes cast before the second period of extra-time, could not find another opening against Materazzi and Co, losing his cool in spectacular fashion with the shootout looming in the Berlin night.

In the immediate aftermath, France coach Raymond Domenech remained remarkably pragmatic about his skipper’s aberration, pointing the finger of blame more towards Italy’s players and to the referee for not offering Zidane more protection.

The Fallout That Ensued
“To see him finish his career in this way is sad. He has had a great career and a great World Cup,” Domenech said and continued, “When one has to put up with what he had to for 80 minutes and the referee doesn’t do anything, one understands. You can’t excuse it, but you can understand it.”

Zidane kept his counsel in the post-match media storm, but speaking to Telefoot just before his 50th birthday admitted, “I’m not at all proud of what I did but it’s part of my past.” So while the final chapter of his story may have brought an unexpected twist to the pages of glory and elegance which came before, it should never be allowed to overshadow or detract from the achievements of a player who was, quite simply, formidable.

For anyone under 40, Zinedine Zidane’s moment of madness in the 2006 final is surely their most memorable World Cup moment by a considerable distance. But it was more than that. Zidane was unstoppable at the World Cup. At 34, he had announced before the tournament that he’d retire after it, and he played every game as though it were his last. It was Zidane who had given Les Bleus a first half lead from the penalty spot with an audacious chip that fooled Azzurri backstop Gianluigi Buffon, the best goalkeeper in the world at the time.

What’s so crazy about the French legend’s spectacular, out-of-nowhere headbutt into the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi is when it happened: with the score tied at one of extra time of the decisive match and the title on the line.

Materazzi knew what Zidane was capable of. Before the start of the additional 30 minutes, Buffon and Italy coach Marcelo Lippi implored the defender to mark “Zizou” more closely. Depending on who you believe, Materazzi actually apologised to Zidane for tugging on his jersey, explaining that he couldn’t afford to give him an inch. The war of words had begun.

France’s No.10 responded that if he wanted it, he’d give Materazzi his shirt after the game. When Materazzi responded with a juvenile off-colour remark about Zidane’s sister – the Italian claimed afterward that he didn’t know if he even had a sister – Zidane lowered the boom.

He was sent off, walking past the trophy on the way to the dressing room. Stunned France’s momentum evapourated, and Italy went on to win the ensuing penalty shootout and their fourth World Cup. France is now honoring its icon with that infamous headbutt statue installed in Paris.

Shahzeb Ali Rizvi is a sports aficionado with a keen eye for the intricacies of cricket and football. He can be reached at [email protected]