When you think of Italy’s World Cup conquest in 2006, the first image to come to mind should be Fabio Cannavaro standing aloft with the trophy in his arms and confetti raining down behind him. Instead, for 99 percent of those who watched the Azzurri beat France on penalties in Berlin, it’s Zinedine Zidane planting his shiny bald head into the chest of Marco Materazzi.
Many viewed the latter as a case of Materazzi pulling off his masterplan, but the majority agreed that the incident marked a sad ending to Zidane’s illustrious career. The tournament was supposed to be the Frenchman’s curtain call before retirement and he had spent it winding the clock black with some brilliant performances, in particular against old foes Brazil.
For most part, the majority were correct. Yet that sentiment also served to suggest the headbutt was his only indiscretion when, in fact, he has previous. Plenty of previous.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the former Juventus star was sent off 14 times as a professional. His first red card came while he was playing for Bordeaux in September 1993. Although Marcel Desailly may have made the first move with an elbow, Zizou responded by punching his future France teammate and fellow World Cup winner in the face.
Five years later, during Les Bleus’ World Cup success on home soil, Zidane became the first French player to be dismissed in a Finals match after he stamped on Saudi Arabia’s Fuad Anwar. Then, during the 2000-01 campaign, he was handed a five-match ban for headbutting Hamburg’s Jochen Kientz. The impact was so severe that Kientz suffered a fractured cheekbone and concussion, leaving him sidelined for more than a month.
By that point, Zidane had already incurred 10 red cards even before his then-world record transfer to Real Madrid in the summer of 2001. Five years later, he was the star of his own documentary film, ‘Zidane, a 21st-Century Portrait’. The match was meant to showcase the best of Zizou during a league game for Los Blancos, against Villarreal in April 2005.
On the contrary, it showed how geniuses had flaws like the rest of us mere mortals. Just like in the World Cup Final, Zizou had already scripted the climactic ending as he was sent off for throwing his hand into an opponent’s face.
Materazzi saw how easy it was to provoke Zidane into headbutting him on the grandest stage of them all, but it could be argued that he had the Madrid boss hook, line and sinker. The pair were protagonists of the final, each scoring for their respective nations to leave the scoreline finely poised at 1-1, but the defender knew he had Zizou cornered. In bad taste or not, he’d done his homework and took his chance when it came.
Both men have hinted at what Materazzi said, and it really was not enough to warrant such a reaction. The fact Zidane waited for a moment and considered his options before turning to physical assault only made it worse. Pundits raged on about how out of character this was, but looking back throughout his career, it was anything but unusual for Zizou.
That would prove to be the defining moment in the Final as the momentum swung in Italy’s favour after mounting French pressure. CT Marcello Lippi, who is using the lockdown to watch back all the Azzurri’s games in Germany, told Rai Radio 1 earlier this week that he was "pretty stunned by Zidane’s behaviour. I worked with him at Juventus, he is an extraordinary person, really humble and intelligent."
While Zidane was, without doubt, an extraordinary, humble and intelligent person, for how he fought poverty to become one of the greatest footballers of all time, it is also true that there was a darker side to his artistry.