World Cup questions: what did Zidane's head-butt in Berlin mean? | Barney Ronay

It was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness” – Albert Camus, the Outsider

The World Cup final, France v Italy in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. It’s still humid under the lights. The score is 1-1, the players wide-eyed but still running.

A World Cup that began a month ago in Munich is entering the final moments of overtime. Marco Materazzi puts his hand on Zinedine Zidane’s back, seeming to guide him quite gently out of the way. Zidane turns, says something and walks away. He has two minutes and 10 seconds left of his career as a footballer.

Everyone knows what happens next. Zidane’s red card is one of the much-storied moments of modern football. We remember it as the decisive turn in a World Cup final; as a discordant endnote to a great career; and its aftermath as a wider narrative of loyalties, brands, attitudes, even personal politics.

So many strands to that one moment. And yet it remains an oddly opaque incident. Watching the whole two hours and 40 minutes of the 2006 final back on Fifa’s media channel, with the added certainty of knowing not just how this ends, but how it feels 14 years later, it is still hard to see any clarity. A bad decision. A moment of violence in the glare of lights and noise. A mute exit.

It was always part of Zidane’s appeal that he remained to some degree an outsider superstar even in his pomp years. Zidane turned 24 while playing (unremarkably) for France at Euro 96. He’d spent six seasons in Ligue 1, brilliant but brittle, by the time Juventus took a gamble on this silhouette of a football genius.

Italy made Zidane. The fitness, the tactical discipline and the influence of Marcello Lippi pushed him right out into the far reaches of his own talent. Sport loves an easy narrative arc. In Berlin it seemed fitting that his final game as a footballer should come with Lippi on the touchline, on a night when Zidane’s expressive, balletic brilliance was matched against a team of definitive Italian defensive resilience.

The Italy coach, Marcello Lippi, looks on as the French players celebrate Zidane’s goal in the final.

The Italy coach, Marcello Lippi, looks on as the French players celebrate Zidane’s goal in the final. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Was this a moment of hubris? Of downfall and fatal flaws? Was Zidane exposed in Berlin? Or ennobled? At times in sport there is a feeling the drive for meaning comes from a kind of desperation. Let’s face it, there really are a lot of people watching here. This has to mean something.

Two things stand out now. First, Italy always seemed to be winning this World Cup final from about 20 minutes into the game. France played like a team with an air of destiny around it; without actually, it turns out, having an air of destiny. Zidane’s sending off was not material to the drift of this game, to its sense of natural justice. The red card deprived France of a first-choice penalty taker – but correctly so. It also deprived Italy of the chance to win the World Cup final without an asterisk.

And secondly Zidane looks wired from the start. The Fifa film is a high-resolution number. As the teams walk out the camera pans to show the wonderful sweep of the stadium, crammed with conflicting shades of blue. These are two of the great national anthems, accompanied by a camera-pan down a thrilling row of row faces.

Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Franck Ribéry listen to the national anthems before the final.

Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Franck Ribéry listen to the national anthems before the final. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

What a team France had. Patrick Vieira stands with eyes closed, an arm around Thierry Henry, who has an arm around a 23-year-old Franck Ribéry. Zidane is at the end of the line, the star of this show already. He was brilliant in the quarter-final against Brazil. In closeup he even looks like the World Cup, that huge sleek rounded skull filling the screen. Even when you know the end note here, the empty clang of forehead into chest, the sense of glory in waiting feels inevitable. Marchons, marchons.

The pitch is cut in beautiful wide green stripes. Even the people in the stands seem to gleam with youth and wealth. This really was the most prosperous of modern-day World Cups, a World Cup drenched in Euro boom times, in Germany’s success, in the age of Wags and headline-grabbing haircuts, a cult of celebrity that still felt oddly innocent.

Zidane’s first touch is a dinked outside-of-the-foot pass to the left. Seconds later Henry is knocked almost out cold in a collision with Fabio Cannavaro’s shoulder. Smelling salts are produced. With four minutes gone Gianluca Zambrotta is booked for hacking down Vieira as he glides away with the ball. Italy aren’t mucking about.

But they’re soon behind. Henry heads the ball inside from the touchline and suddenly Florent Malouda is haring in on goal. Materazzi goes to tackle, then pulls his leg away. Cannavaro stays close but resists making contact. Malouda falls over. It’s a pretty soft penalty kick.

Zidane takes the kick. And of course it’s ridiculous. A Panenka penalty in the seventh minute of the World Cup final against one of the best goalkeepers ever to play the game. Who does this?

Zidane scores with a Panenka penalty.

Zidane scores with a Panenka penalty. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA Images

It’s also a poor Panenka, floating on to the bar then bouncing down and just over the line. It’s a goal. But it feels like an embarrassment to the occasion, the act of someone not entirely in control.

In the stands Jacques Chirac bounces and yelps. France have held on to a 1-0 lead in their last two games. Italy have now conceded their first goal scored by an actual opponent in this tournament – the only other was Cristian Zaccardo’s own-goal in the group-stage draw against the USA. But they soon start to press back.

What have Italy got here? For a start they have Mauro Camoranesi, who wouldn’t get anywhere near the French team, who is a stubby little scuttling pest of a midfielder, but who doesn’t give a damn about any of this, or about the occasion, and just keeps on snapping around Zidane.

They have Andrea Pirlo, a sublime talent too, and seemingly always able to execute those skills in these huge games. Pirlo looks calm, buzzing up and down the left, twisting about chipping intricate little passes, asserting his own rhythms. It’s his corner that makes the equaliser, a precise delivery on to the head of Materazzi, who leaps above Vieira and batters the ball past Fabien Barthez, his forehead striking the leather like a fist.

Marco Materazzi heads the ball past Fabien Barthez for the equaliser.

Marco Materazzi heads the ball past Fabien Barthez for the equaliser. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The score is 1-1. Italy are just about in charge now. Fabio Grosso gallops down the left and punts a cross over the bar. Grosso isn’t a great left-back. But he had a great World Cup. This is what Italy do, a way of playing that ennobles and vindicates every other team’s victories. You want this? You want your moment in time? Fine. But you’ve got to come through us to get there.

Henry has recovered by now. He runs past Francesco Totti and slides Ribéry in on the right. He fends off Gennaro Gattuso with a regal dip of the shoulder. Mention is sometimes made of the fact Henry played in nine cup finals and scored zero goals. A few months earlier he left the pitch raging in Paris after defeat by Barcelona in the Champions League final. There is no significance to this. Henry is an extraordinary footballer and a leader too, driving to the left and setting up the pattern of France’s attacks, with the wide players surging inside and Zidane playing very high at times as a genuine No 10.

Italy’s success in this game lies in the way they interrupt this flow. Every time Zidane gets the ball within 40 metres of goal Gattuso charges into his space. Zidane can have the ball in the centre circle. Anywhere else: compress, bite, bring him down. When they have the ball Italy play diagonal long passes to Luca Toni. The plan is clear. Shut Zidane down. Keep possession. Get behind the French full-backs.

With 35 minutes gone Toni heads Pirlo’s cross against the bar. Moments later Zidane turns and starts to dribble but Materazzi comes sprinting out and performs an astonishing tackle, taking he ball at full stretch with a deep booming thunk. Zidane gets up. No complaints. But Italy are dominating as half-time arrives.

The second half is gripping. Malouda should have another penalty in the 53rd minute after he’s bundled down by Zambrotta. Vieira goes off injured. Toni heads a deep free-kick past Barthez from the edge of the box with thrilling power, but he’s offside.

Zidane reacts after his header was saved by Gianluigi Buffon.

Zidane reacts after his header was saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

As the game enters the final 10 minutes of normal time Italy are playing through a kind of triumphant rage, defending furiously, keeping the ball, passing it backwards to cheers from their support. Zidane has injured his shoulder. He has it sprayed and wanders back on. He’s still running hard, even if by now his goal feels like it happened in another life.

Even the break before extra time seems telling. Lippi is pointing and yelling and bollocking his players. Raymond Domenech takes Zidane to one side and speaks to him quietly. Zidane listens then walks away. Fair enough. What exactly, are you going to tell him here anyway?

Ribéry finds space and has a shot at goal. David Trezeguet, scorer of the winner against Italy in the final of Euro 2000, replaces him. Zidane does something brilliant, jinking away from the blue press, then haring into the middle to head Willy Sagnol’s cross. Buffon palms it over. Zidane screams. And then it happens.

There are 12 minutes left of extra time. Italy have cleared the ball upfield. Materazzi touches Zidane’s back. It seems like nothing much. Words are spoken. Play continues. Zidane and Materazzi are a few metres apart. Zidane turns, thinks about it. The incident is passing. It’s almost gone. But not quite. Zidane comes closer.

It looks like an excellent butt from a technical point of view: shoulders swivelling, neck wrenched, forehead rammed into the breast bone. It’s not exactly “shockingly violent”, as the commentator suggests (Materazzi just gets up); more shockingly weird and out of place.

Play continues. But this is too big to pass. It’s a footballing Chernobyl. It can’t be glossed or hushed. The reactor core is open. And the fallout is already starting. Italian players are pointing and haranguing the referee. There are animated conversations, figures scuttling across the pitch.

It takes two minutes of earpiece-clutching for a response to come. Zidane is sent off. He puts a hand on the referee’s shoulder, says something, then walks away. On the touchline Domenech performs furious sarcastic applause. Zidane ambles past the trophy. And that is pretty much that.

Zidane removes the captain’s armband after receiving the red card from the referee, Horacio Elizondo.

Zidane removes the captain’s armband after receiving the red card from the referee, Horacio Elizondo. Photograph: Valéry Hache/AFP/Getty Images

There are still two main mysteries here. First, why did he do it? Zidane suggested afterwards that his mother had been insulted. Some English newspapers even ran a story that Materazzi had called his mother “a terrorist whore”, apparently based on lip reading experts, but then had to apologise, retract and pay libel damages when Materazzi denied it.

“My mother died when I was 15. I would never have insulted his,” Materazzi has said. “I spoke about his sister instead.” Ah. That’s OK then. Endless Warren Report-style analysis seems to have concluded Materazzi said: “You can give it [his shirt] to your sister” or something close.

Is it enough? Does any part of this add up? There has been so much noise, so much temptation to portray Zidane as either a fatally-flawed hero, a defender of personal rights, a human agent in a world of athletic units. Really, though, the main feeling is one of crushing mundanity, of mild absurdity even. Is this really it?

Zinedine Zidane head-butts Marco Materazzi: brick-by-brick World Cup reconstruction

The second mystery surrounds the call to send him off. Lippi suggested initially help had come from a Fifa official with a TV monitor. This would have been a breach of protocol. The Fifa line is that the fourth official, Luis Medina Cantalejo of Spain, saw the butt in real time and told referee Horacio Elizondo through his head set.

The referee has even given a TED talk on this subject. Apparently Cantalejo told him: “Dreadful, Zidane’s head-butt on Materazzi was dreadful … Fuck! Zidane head-butted Materazzi. When you see the video you will not believe me.” Cantalejo mentions video here, unnecessarily. Conspiracy fans will perhaps wonder why.

Does it matter? This was entirely the right decision. Although, it also feels a little odd even now. Football changed in that instant: a moment of progress, but also of intrusion, a moment when professional sport edged closer to becoming an arm of our shared 24-hour digital surveillance.

To follow high-level football now is to experience an endless loop, an endless argument about details. Some see this as a triumph, progress towards the elimination of error and perfectibility. This is perhaps the case. But it also forgets the elements of play, of muddle, of intrigue that distinguish “sport” (look up that word) from data, from a line of numbers, from a courtroom transcript, from drudgery, from an absence of human mess and human muddle.

So to penalties. Pirlo hoists the opening kick in the roof of the net, a kick so decisive you know at this moment Italy are going to win. Materazzi takes one, of course, and scores easily. In fact everyone scores except Trezeguet, who smashes his with pointless power against the crossbar. The ball bounces down and out, a mocking echo of that Panenka. “The BIGGEST SIX INCHES in French football HISTORY,” the Fifa commentator says, admiringly.

Italy just keep slotting them. Alessandro Del Piero never looks like missing through every one of the 50 steps it takes to get to the spot. Grosso puts one in the corner. And that is it. The blue shirts come haring on, leaping and jumping, eyes wide, spooked by their own moment of history.

Italy’s Fabio Grosso celebrates after scoring the match-winning penalty.

Italy’s Fabio Grosso celebrates after scoring the match-winning penalty. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

In France there was an instant urge to find some kind of meaning in Zidane’s headbutt, not just as a reason for defeat, but as some wider cultural force. “Zizou On T’aime” was scrawled across the Arc de Triomphe. Chirac would announce his love and admiration for Zidane (who lost his temper and butted someone) in a speech on the team’s return. The butt was made into a sculpture (“Coup De Tete”) and displayed at the Centre Pompidou.

Some of his teammates were less than pleased. Sagnol didn’t speak to Zidane for two years. And for that team this was a moment when something passed. A World Cup win would have been France’s third major trophy in eight years, a run to enshrine that team with the true greats.

Half of the class in 2006 had been there for the whole span. In the event that brilliant generation is left with a home World Cup, a Euros in the country next door, the implosion in South Korea and defeat to Greece at Euro 2004: a fine champion team but not quite an all-time great one.

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Zidane’s sending off brought a feeling of entropy, but also of absurdity, an act pulled out all that heat and light that seems to mean less the more you look at it.

It seems significant that Zidane himself has never appeared to be tortured, or aggrieved, or even that bothered by his final moment as a footballer. What does seem certain is that Italy’s win reasserted in its own way the value of the team in an age in individualism. And that they there, all white noise aside, entirely deserved winners.