Zidane exits the stage with a walk of shame
Richard Williams in Berlin
Monday July 10, 2006
Zinédine Zidane began life as a street footballer in La Castellane, the tough suburb of Marseille in which he grew up. He ended it last night as a street fighter in one of Europe's most historic stadiums and in front of a worldwide audience of millions.
And so a towering football career ended in humiliation as Zidane disappeared down the tunnel for the last time, sent off in the second half of extra time in a World Cup final for blatantly shoving his head into the chest of Marco Materazzi, with whom he had just been having a bitter exchange of words.
The last of those goals had given the World Cup final exactly what neutrals were hoping for: the early lead for France that would make Italy come out and play. There was almost a 32nd, too, as the first half of extra time drew to a close and he fed Willy Sagnol out on the right before stealthily drifting through the Italian defence to meet the answering cross with a powerful header that called upon all of Gianluigi Buffon's virtuosity as the goalkeeper soared to touch it over the bar.
Had that attempt found its mark, and had France held on to the resulting lead, a very different coda would have been added to Zidane's career. He could have gone off into the sunset with every decoration his grateful country could bestow. As things stood, Italy were able to win the match on penalties but were then forced to endure the derision of France's supporters, who stayed behind for the presentation, one suspected, mainly in order to let Materazzi and his team mates know what they thought of them.
"Zizou dans la légende," a banner had stated confidently two hours earlier as the teams came out and the cameras lingered on the unmistakeable figure of the French captain. And when Florent Malouda went down under Materazzi's challenge in the seventh minute, there cannot have been a soul who watched Zidane place the ball on the spot and imagined that the outcome was in doubt. Zidane, however, was in the mood to tease his admirers. Facing Buffon, a goalkeeper until then unbeaten by any opposition player in this tournament, he decided to vary the penalty-kick technique that had given France their semi-final victory over Portugal.
There was the same two-step approach, but this time he delayed a fraction and, with the instep of his right boot, produced a gentle chip that looped on to the underside of the bar and came down a foot or so inside the goal line before spinning back out. In the last game of his career, Zidane had taken a terrific risk but, as a reward, seemed to have taken the first step to ensuring that his retirement would begin with the most appropriate of celebrations as France regained the title they had won in 1998 and so fecklessly tossed away four years later. "Zidane, Zidane, Zidane... France was in the grip of 'zizoumania'," Marcel Desailly wrote in his autobiography, reflecting on the triumph on home soil eight years ago, when giant images of the No 10 covered the sides of floodlit office blocks.
"I never imagined it could grow to such proportions. Sometimes I asked myself if one human being could withstand such passion. And did he, in any case, quite resist it? At the start of the tournament we found him a little febrile, more stretched, more demanding than usual, at least on the pitch. That febrility culminated in his expulsion against Saudi Arabia. And after a moment of depression, he reacted like a champion and started to prepare himself for the quarter-final."
Zidane had been sent off against Saudi Arabia for trampling on an opponent who, it has been claimed (without confirmation), had aimed racist insults at him. The team suffered in his absence, enhancing the widespread belief that they were unable to play without him, but he returned in time to score two of their goals in the final in Paris. Four years later an injury kept him out of the campaign in South Korea until it was beyond salvaging
This summer two yellow cards in the opening matches excluded him from France's third group match. This time his absence exerted an even more powerful effect, and not just on the man himself. He came back and performed against Spain and Brazil as if he were again in the prime of his career, showing us a game filled with light and grace. In the meantime, however, his colleagues had taken the opportunity to demonstrate that they were no longer a one-man team.
Together, it seemed, they would ensure that the great man had the chance to finish his career, as the French say, in beauty. No such poetic farewell was available last night. Zidane had played a full part in the match, directing the younger players around him with his customary guile as they began to reimpose themselves in the latter stages. But the final act of his career ensured that, after a generally enjoyable tournament, this World Cup final will be remembered with a wince. Outside Italy, of course.
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