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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

My favourite World Cup moment: Zidane's night of genius and violence

Zidane showed his destructive force in the 2006 final

This TV grab takenon French TV channel LCI showsZinedine Zidane, left, butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi during the World Cup 2006 finalat Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. AFP
This TV grab takenon French TV channel LCI showsZinedine Zidane, left, butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi during the World Cup 2006 finalat Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. AFP

It was a reckless moment of violence perpetrated by a man more closely associated with the finer points of the beautiful game. It was also the final act of a glorious, trophy laden career in the biggest game of them all. Is there a more significant moment in World Cup history than Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 final?

Zidane’s French side had travelled to Germany with a collection of ageing all-stars populating the squad. Few fancied them to make an impact after they had flopped so badly four years before.

In the event, like all great teams, France and Zidane got better as the tournament progressed, even if the “trouble ahead” warning signs were there from the earliest exchanges.

The side claimed two points in their first two games, labouring to a goalless draw with Switzerland and a 1-1 scoreline with South Korea. Zidane showed occasional flashes of brilliance but also got booked twice and was given a one-match ban. The French won their final group game against Togo to finish second in the group.

That set up a tough route to the final for Les Bleus but Zidane was back from suspension and determined to deliver football’s greatest prize in his valedictory tournament.

With every knockout game marking the potential end point to his career, Zizou rose to the challenge: he scored as France saw off Spain in the round of 16, set up the winner against Brazil in the quarter-finals and scored again in the 1-0 semi-final win over Portugal. His overall contribution, particularly in the match against holders Brazil, was that of an old master painting glorious, beautiful patterns.

And so to Berlin. It began well. Zidane scored a sixth-minute penalty, a Panenka of all things past the stranded Gigi Buffon in goal for Italy. It was Zidane’s third goal in a World Cup final, a mark only matched by Geoff Hurst of England and Vava and Pele of Brazil.

Marco Materazzi, who had conceded the early penalty, atoned for his error by levelling the scores. Italy could easily have gone ahead before half-time, but the longer the match went on the more it looked that France and Zizou would prevail. The match drifted into extra-time. Zidane almost scored again with a header at the end of the first additional period, but with ten minutes left in the match, the moment arrived.

What happened has been the subject of conjecture, dispute and even a lawsuit. What remains uncontested is that after almost two hours of Zidane having his shirt pulled both literally and metaphorically by Materazzi, the Frenchman snapped after a particularly choice exchange of words.

The butt was delivered in the style of a rampant bull – to the Italian’s chest. Materazzi was felled. Zidane was expelled. Italy prevailed on penalties.

Zidane won Fifa’s Golden Ball, awarded to the best player in the tournament. But all those sublime touches and all that wonderful skill have been airbrushed out of our collective memories. All many remember now is the destructive violence of that one moment, not the delicious artistry that preceded it.

Twelve years later, Zidane walked away again, this time from club management. We will never know whether his Real Madrid side peaked in Kiev last month or if there was still more to come. Just like he did in Berlin, the mercurial genius left us wondering what might have been.

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