How Zinedine Zidane’s flawed genius defined the 2006 World Cup

Everyone remembers the headbutt, but not so much what came before. The background to that defining moment in the career of Zinedine Zidane – and the history of the French national team – has been lost in the stark brutality of such an arresting image. A thrilling journey has been forgotten, completely overlooked in favour of the tragic destination.

In the final moments of the 2006 World Cup final, with the score at 1-1 and penalties on the way, Zidane planted his head firmly into the chest of Italy defender Marco Materazzi. Moments before that, something had been said. What exactly that was has been much speculated upon in the days, weeks, months and indeed years that have followed. Nobody, other than the two players involved, knows for certain.

Zidane had always been a volatile character, prone to occasional acts of random and almost inexplicable violence. It many ways it was part of his appeal. A player who was so subtle, shimmering and inventive with the ball at his feet, he was also capable of thundering into challenges or lashing out at opponents when the mood took him.

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He was the archetype of the sullen playmaker with the artistic temperament. Someone capable of summoning up both the most sublime ingenuity and reckless destruction, often within the same match. Zidane was a law unto himself and supporters loved him for it. He was France’s golden boy with a brutal edge; a match-winner who could occasionally lose the plot and his own head.

It wasn’t as if we hadn’t been warned. In 1998, when France hosted and won the World Cup, Zidane established himself as his country’s star man. Born in Marseille to Algerian parents, an adoring public embraced him anew as an excellent footballer and a potent symbol of a united France. But even as he inspired them to success that summer, scoring twice in the final against Brazil, a darker side to his character was hinted at.

France were 2-0 up against Saudi Arabia and set for a comfortable victory in their second group game when Zidane took leave of his senses. In a tangle that followed Fuad Anwar’s tackle, he stamped down on the Saudi captain and was deservedly sent off. He served a two-game suspension, during which France struggled to break down Denmark and Paraguay. It would become the forgotten red card, as the headbutt on Materazzi eclipsed all others, but it was significant nonetheless.

Eight years later, Zidane’s mercurial influence helped carry France to the final of the 2006 World Cup. They eventually lost on penalties to Italy, but had come dangerously close to not reaching the tournament in the first place. In qualifying, Raymond Domenech’s side were devoid of confidence and creativity, enduring goalless draws at home to Israel, the Republic of Ireland and Switzerland that left their fate hanging in the balance.

France were fourth in their group and something had to change. Three veterans – Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele – were tempted out of retirement and had an immediate impact. Zidane was named as the team’s captain and lauded by supporters for returning in their hour of need. Psychologically, it was a huge boost just to have him back.

Even if Zidane was no longer quite at the peak of his powers, his presence alone made France a better side. It restored their belief and swagger, both of which had been lost in the aftermath of a grim group-stage exit at the 2002 World Cup and an insipid Euro 2004, which was ended by defeat by Greece. Zidane’s return was a reminder of former glories and had a clear galvanising effect on players and supporters alike.

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With the exodus of players that followed elimination from the Euros under Jacques Santini, a new generation had emerged to take their place. Many, like Gael Givet, Sebastien Squillaci and Benoit Pedretti, didn’t last. They simply weren’t of the standard required. Matches that would once have been routine wins became desperate struggles. Then Zidane showed up.

He infused the team with his unmistakable aura, that powerful sense of stardust and excitement which had been missing in his absence. He had a winning mentality and was determined to drag others along with him. Ego can drive players apart, creating factions and cliques that undermine a team’s performance, but Zidane wielded his for the benefit of all.

After more than a year in retirement, he made his international return in a friendly against the Ivory Coast. Although nothing was at stake, Zidane’s inclusion created a frisson of anticipation amongst the crowd. It peaked in the second half when he volleyed in Sylvain Wiltord’s corner and was mobbed by his teammates. The main man was back and he meant business.

France took seven points from their next three qualifiers, meaning that a home win against Cyprus would confirm their place at the World Cup and complete an impressive rescue mission. After a couple of wayward efforts from Djibril Cisse, Zidane took control of the game. He scored the opening goal to calm any nerves and set France on their way to a comfortable 4-0 victory, their biggest of the campaign.

Yet the pressure was still on Raymond Domenech, who was regarded as a curious appointment. He had done well in the national team’s youth set-up but had some odd habits and ideas which led to difficulties with several key players. His belief in astrology influenced squad selection and his keenness for players to open up to each other through acting was met with plenty of resistance. Increasingly, the manager wasn’t who they looked to for direction.

As the bungling Domenech failed to establish authority over the team, Zidane became their de facto leader instead. A supremely talented and beguiling playmaker with a spiky side to his character, he gave the French renewed hope. Even with an unreliable manager in charge, they started to believe again.

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That burgeoning optimism seemed remarkably misplaced as France made a slow start to the World Cup in Germany. They drew their first two group games, against Switzerland and South Korea, in uninspiring fashion. An off-colour Zidane picked up a booking in each which meant he was suspended for the crucial triumph over Togo.

France were through to the second round in far from convincing style, setting up a meeting with Spain. Expecting defeat, a national crisis loomed. While others might have wilted, Zidane rose to the occasion. Restored to the starting line-up, he brought the French team and the tournament under his spell.

Spain struck first after Thuram gave away a penalty, which David Villa coolly finished. Franck Ribery then rounded Iker Casillas to equalise at the start of the second half. In a tense and tetchy game, Zidane made his class count. A dangerous free-kick came through to Patrick Vieira for the midfielder to head home and Zidane put the finishing touches to a great breakaway goal, cutting inside Carlos Puyol to finish.

The stage was set for a reunion with Brazil, a replay of the 1998 final. Zidane was in his element and produced one of the best individual displays in World Cup history. His combination of silky touches and steely determination was captivating to watch. Wearing his golden boots, Zidane ran the show and refused to surrender the ball. Thierry Henry scored the only goal of the game from his deep free-kick, but that was a minor part of a thrilling whole.

Those 90 minutes were an undisputed masterpiece. A Brazilian midfield of Gilberto Silva, Ze Roberto, Juninho Pernambucano and Kaka couldn’t even begin to get a handle on Zidane’s elusive brilliance. He rolled back the years, gliding across the pitch with a stately poise. He was unstoppable – elegance and efficiency working in tandem.

At one point in the first half he weaved through three of Brazil’s four midfielders with a mere handful of touches, carrying the ball 30 yards upfield to initiate another attack. When the ball squirmed through to him he held off Ze Roberto, pivoted between him and Juninho as they closed in and then sent Gilberto Silva entirely the wrong way with a stepover. He was toying with top-class players.

Whenever a teammate was struggling to know what to do with possession, they handed it over to Zidane. A soft-shoed maestro, he was the safest of bets in any situation; a clever, teasing, probing presence at the heart of the midfield. There were little feints and drag-backs, sharp turns and subtle dummies. Orchestrating the play and pointing out where others should run to, Zidane was in complete control of proceedings.

That crucial victory over the reigning champions meant momentum was building ahead of a semi-final with Portugal. Italy, who had beaten Germany after extra time the night before, would play the winner. Chances came and went for both sides until, on the half-hour mark, Thierry Henry was felled in the box by Ricardo Carvalho. After a short run-up, Zidane did the rest.

The Portuguese were kept at bay in a frantic second half and several of their players, Cristiano Ronaldo included, were in tears at the final whistle. Like his former Real Madrid teammate Zidane, Luis Figo had announced that this would be his last international tournament. At the final whistle the two old masters exchanged shirts and a touching embrace borne of mutual respect.

The historic Olympiastadion was the setting for the final. As the teams lined up and La Marseillaise played out, many sang passionately. Others were in a more contemplative mood. Patrick Vieira stood with his eyes closed, while Zidane stared directly and impassively ahead. When the anthem finished he turned to address his teammates. The time had come to deliver an implausible triumph.

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France made the perfect start, winning a penalty after just six minutes. Henry flicked the ball on for Florent Malouda, who was clipped by Marco Materazzi as he ran through on goal. Up stepped Zidane to score in a second final – but only just. His Panenka effort bounced down off the bar, a foot over the line and back out again, as Gianluigi Buffon dived to his right.

Even if the execution wasn’t as clean as he would have liked, it demonstrated Zidane’s daring side. He was willing to take a risk on the biggest and most unforgiving stage of all, in his final game as a professional footballer. There would be no second chances. A bold but somewhat fortunate move, it put France in front.

Their lead didn’t last long as Materazzi redeemed himself, climbing highest to head home Andrea Pirlo’s corner and prove that the direct route to goal could be just as effective. He had a second effort cleared away minutes later as the referee blew for a foul on Patrick Vieira. Pirlo’s corners were a constant threat, Luca Toni heading another against the bar before half-time.

Toni did find the net in the second half, but his celebrations were cut short: offside had been given by the linesman. For France, Thierry Henry made a couple of surging runs into the Italian penalty area but couldn’t find the right finish. Extra time awaited.

Even then the two sides couldn’t be separated. As France pushed for a winner, Zidane’s moment came and went. Receiving the ball in the final third, he skipped past one challenge and played a pass out wide to Willy Sagnol. Continuing his run into the box, he met the cross from the right with a powerful header. The connection was good but too central, and Buffon leapt to palm the ball over the bar. With that, Zidane’s chance of a happy ending disappeared.

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In the second half of extra time, 10 minutes away from a penalty shoot-out in which he would have played a key role, it happened. Off the ball, some 50 yards from the play, Materazzi lay prone on the ground. Confusion reigned. The referee went to investigate as video replays revealed the truth. One of football’s greatest wind-up merchants had suckered Zidane into making a terrible mistake.

Following consultation with his fourth official on the sideline, referee Horacio Elizondo returned to the field to brandish the red card. French complaints fell on deaf ears, as Zidane’s glorious career came to a dishonourable end. Walking down the tunnel with his head bowed, he passed the trophy by the side of the pitch. It wouldn’t be returning with him to France. Missing one of their most reliable takers, Les Bleus lost on penalties. To rub salt into the wound, Materazzi converted his effort for the Italians.

In the aftermath, the French public was divided on how to respond. Zidane had carried them this far and then let them down at the last. Although some felt frustrated, forgiveness was soon forthcoming. L’Equipe’s headline spoke of eternal regrets, but as the French team gathered at the Place de la Concorde to be welcomed home, chants of ‘Zizou!’ broke out from the crowd. He remained their idol regardless of what had happened.

It didn’t affect his standing among impartial observers either. Although most of the votes had been cast before his red card, Zidane still won the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player ahead of Fabio Cannavaro and Pirlo. Even in defeat he was unquestionably the star attraction.

The headbutt remains an important part of the myth and mystique that surrounds Zidane. One of the most controversial moments in World Cup history, it’s been stripped of context in recent times – the story of the returning hero who resurrected his country’s hopes obscured by that single heedless act. Somehow, though, it felt like the most fitting end for France’s flawed genius.

How Zinedine Zidane’s flawed genius defined the 2006 World Cup
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