Sports Nut

The Head-Butting Butthead

Zinedine Zidane caps off his brilliant, violent career.

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Zinedine Zidane

French cinema has always been far grittier than the American version. It’s only fitting, then, that France’s star midfielder, Zinedine Zidane, went with vérité rather than opting for a Hollywood ending to his soccer career. After a run of brilliant play in the knockout stages that brought about fond remembrance of his former glory, “Zizou” was all set to retire after a triumph in Sunday’s World Cup final. And then he turned a seemingly innocuous extra-time encounter with Italian defender Marco Materazzi into a scene from a French gangster flick. Zidane powered a header into the Italian’s chest, earning an immediate red card. The man who had been celebrated as a venerable footballing god all tournament had transformed into Cardinal Richelieu.

When the game fell to penalties, defeat for France—which was by then without Zidane and subbed-out attackers Thierry Henry and Franck Ribéry—seemed inevitable. When Italy’s Fabio (Grosso) beat France’s Fabien (Barthez) with the clincher, the Azzurri started to party as the rest of us pondered the miserable Zidane, shoulders slumped, wiping at tears, shuffling past the FIFA World Cup Trophy on his way to the locker room. * He didn’t even pick up his second-place medal.

Casual fans who bought into the nonstop Zidane hype are likely unaware that this is hardly his first bit of on-pitch thuggishness. During France’s romp to the 1998 World Cup title, Zidane stomped on a Saudi Arabian opponent, earning a suspension that his heroics in the final handily obscured. In 2000 *, Zidane offered a foreshadowing of Sunday’s assault and battery, head-butting a player from SV Hamburg during a Champions League match. The following season he again wallpapered over the past unpleasantness by uncorking one of the greatest goals ever seen in the Champions League.

Despite Zidane’s red card, he was handed the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. It’s a testament to both his brilliance against Spain and Brazil, and to his personality. Remember, the French barely scraped into the Round of 16, beating Togo in a must-win affair—without Zidane, who missed the match because of accumulated yellow cards. Given a reprieve, Zizou picked up his squad by the scruff of the neck and spurred them by example. Angry passion has always been a critical factor in Zidane’s game—as he has mellowed during his advancing years, his play has gone south as well. Zidane was able to summon his fire once more in Germany. This was Zizou in full—you can’t take the genius in the midfield without also taking the occasional bout of anger. If it cost his team the World Cup, well, they wouldn’t have been in that position anyway.

This World Cup should silence those who continue to believe world-class soccer is for suburban minivan types, usually referred to as “pansies” or other more colorful colloquialisms. Between Zidane’s head butt, Wayne Rooney’s testicle trample, and Daniele de Rossi’s surgical opening of Brian McBride’s face, Germany 2006 was the real thing—a cruel, violent test of wills. All the talk about sissy diving misses an attendant concept. Diving happens because there is plenty of actual abuse out there. Defenders take liberties outside of the penalty area—strikers get payback by embellishing contact where it is more costly.

The final should also quiet complaints about penalty kicks being a terrible way of settling the world’s most popular tournament. No one loves to see a game end on kicks, but the 30 minutes of overtime on Sunday demonstrated why they are necessary. Most of the players could barely summon the energy to stay upright, much less conjure a coherent attack. Kicks came as a relief, adding some drama to an endgame that would have otherwise been decided by a farcical error.

France-Italy wasn’t by any stretch the best game of the tournament. It did display, though, that the world is so manic about the beautiful game precisely because it’s so often anything but beautiful. A soccer match is a frequently boring, occasionally tragic, and periodically triumphant affair, all compressed into 90 minutes. Yesterday’s game, and Zidane’s moments of mastery and mayhem, displayed the sport’s full range of emotions. Nobody would have fantasized about a final that ended with penalty kicks after the best player on the field got ejected. Not a very romantic turn of events, perhaps, but soccer isn’t much for Hollywood endings.

Corrections, July 11: This column originally misspelled the Italian team’s nickname. It is Azzurri, not Azzuri. July 13: Also, the Jules Rimet Cup is no longer given to the World Cup champion. The winner now gets the FIFA World Cup Trophy. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The piece also misstated the year when Zinedine Zidane head-butted a player in the Champions League. It was 2000, not 2001. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)