World Cup Moments: Zidane’s rush of blood to the head

‘Sometimes words are harder than blows. When he said it for the third time, I reacted’

The crowd are whistling. Something has happened. Marco Materazzi is on the ground. The match commentators are confused. They think David Trezeguet has had something to do with it but they are just guessing. Their eyes, and the eyes of hundreds of millions of people around the world, were on the other end of the pitch. They did not see it.

Gianluigi Buffon did. He races to the officials on the sideline, remonstrates and points fingers. By now the rest of the players have cottoned on. On the sidelines, Marcello Lippi has to be restrained. In the midst of it all one man is calm. Zinedine Zidane just stares ahead. Having talked with his assistants, the referee, Horacio Elizondo, approaches the French captain. A red card is waved. Zidane, with an arm around his shoulder, tries to explain that he had been provoked. It is all to no avail.

What many people forget is that Zidane was not supposed to be there in the first place. The shock exit at the hands of Greece in Portugal at Euro 2004 had signalled what he called “the end of a cycle” and had convinced him that he should retire from international football. It was no longer for him. On August 12th, 2004 he released a statement on his website. “I have thought long and hard over this decision. I think that at a given moment you must say ‘stop’ . . . There have been some great players who retired in 2000 and 2002, other players are doing it and now I’m doing it.”

Almost exactly a year later Zidane would use that very same website to announce his return. There had been rumours that he would do so but Zidane had publicly denied them. When asked by L'Equipe for his reaction to the news, Christophe Dugarry, a former World Cup-winning team-mate of Zidane's, instructed the paper not to run the story as he thought somebody must have hacked the website. There had been no piracy involved, however, Zidane was back. "For the very first time in my life I have decided to go back on my word which is very important for me," read his statement. "When I made the decision to retire I was very serious - today I have made the same decision but in reverse." Zidane had listened to the voice.


“One night, at 3am, I suddenly woke up and I then spoke with someone,” he said, explaining his reason for coming out of international retirement. “Until I die I will never tell [who that person was], this is just too crazy. This is someone that you will probably never meet. During the hours that followed I was on my own with that person, at home, and I took the decision to come back. I had never experienced that before, I felt pushed by this force which dictated my behaviour. It was a revelation for me, I had to obey that voice that was advising me.”

The manager of France, Raymond Domenech, publicly declared himself to be "extremely happy" that Zidane - as well as Claude Makélélé and Lilian Thuram - had decided to come out of retirement and so he should have been. Domenech had done very little to persuade the three players, who had a combined age of 98, to stay on when he took over from Jacques Santini in 2004 but his France side were struggling through World Cup qualification and in need of experienced professionals. The manager looked out of his depth. Writing about France and Zidane's return for the Observer a year before the tournament, Darren Tullett quoted one French World Cup winner as saying: "Domenech is a prat and we haven't got a clue what he's going on about half the time."

The results at that stage in the qualification process backed up the player’s claim. France may have been undefeated but there had been too many unconvincing displays in a weak enough group. That was especially true at home where they had racked up scoreless stalemates against Israel, Ireland and Switzerland (Cyprus and the Faroe Islands made up the rest of the group). That left Domenech’s side in fourth place, three points behind the group leaders, Ireland, with just four games to go. Their hopes of making Germany looked set to be dashed. However, with Makélélé, Thuram and Zidane restored to the squad France won three matches, drew the other, finished top of their group and the country could let out a sigh of relief.

Three weeks before the end of La Liga’s 2005-06 season, it was time for another announcement from Zidane. This was it for him. He was done with club and international football for good. “I have to listen to my body and I cannot carry on for another year. I think it is better to clarify the situation now. I have been thinking about it for a long time. It’s been three years since we [MADRID]won anything and in two of those, I’ve not played as I’ve wanted. I am not going to play any better than I have done in the past. I don’t want to just play for Real Madrid for the sake of it.” There would be no more jaw-dropping volleys and there would be more balletic pirouettes, his signature move that left defenders rooted to the ground like an old tree. There would, however, be one last chance of glory on the biggest stage football has to offer.

While Spain, Brazil and Portugal all qualified from the group stages with three wins, nine points and the utmost of ease, France recreated their poor form from qualification. Their first match was against Switzerland. Kobi Kuhn's limited team knew the French only too well and they were able to frustrate their foes at every turn. From little material, Zidane, captaining the team, fashioned his side's only real opportunities but both were spurned by team-mates. Fires burned, nostrils flared and tempers bubbled. Thuram and William Gallas felt the lash of their captain's tongue. The match ended in a goalless draw.

In the eyes of the French this was a humiliating result that was made worse by the form of Zidane. "The way the France captain played," wrote Michael Walker in the Guardian, "he is in danger of being referred to as the once-great Zidane . . . this was not the Zidane we will recall or want to recall." Playing as part of a trio behind Henry, he was "slow and sloppy", a mere shadow of his former majesty.

Domenech agreed. With three minutes of injury time left and France in search of a winning goal, he took off the three-time winner of the Fifa World Player of the Year award and replaced him with Trezeguet. Unless France beat Togo in their next match that would be the last time that the world would glimpse Zidane at work, a most ignominious exit for a glorious player. He had picked up two yellow cards and was suspended for the next game.

Togo were poor, but it took 55 minutes for France to break them down. Patrick Vieira celebrated his 30th birthday with his fifth goal in 90 appearances before Henry got his second of the tournament to seal the victory. France could have won by more but they were held back by Trezeguet's lack of confidence and Franck Ribéry's errant finishing. Nonetheless, they were through to the next round, qualifying in second place just ahead of South Korea. They had won their first World Cup match since beating Brazil in the final eight years earlier and they had done it all without Zidane in their side.

Such had been the midfielder’s wayward performances by that stage of the competition that ahead of the last-16 match against Spain, the Guardian ran a referendum questioning whether Zidane should start. “The powers of the once imperious midfielder looked to have deserted him . . . would Domenech be better to stick to a winning formula to generate much needed momentum?” it asked.

Few who had seen him play would have argued that Zidane deserved to be anything other than a spectator but Domenech disagreed. Zidane would start. Eric Abidal backed his manager's choice: "Zidane will be the difference," he said. Abidal could never have known how prophetic his words would be but he surely knew how little say his manager had at that point of the tournament.

"Domenech had come into the 2006 World Cup with a masterplan that quickly looked more like a botched strategy devised by someone who didn't master much, least of all his own players," wrote Philippe Auclair of L'Equipe in his biography of Thierry Henry, Lonely at the Top. "Frustrated by their incapacity to overcome modest opponents in the group phase, senior members of Domenech's squad . . . decided to take the matter into their own hands and impose self-governance within the French camp. That, at least, is the way in which France's resurgence from the round of 16 onwards is almost universally explained in my home country." Zidane, of course, was the most senior of those senior members and he was about to take total control.

With just seven minutes remaining on the clock and sides drawing 1-1, France won a free kick outside the box. Spain had been very impressive in the group stages and many expected them to finally come good in major tournament (their starting 11 contained eight players who would go on to win Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, and afterwards Henry admitted that “people . . . thought we were going to get killed against Spain”).

By this stage in the game, the momentum had seemed to be swinging towards them - just minutes before Joaquín had rifled a shot wide of the post after making a mockery of the France defence. Then up stepped Zidane. His free kick was converted by the head of Vieira. Nine minutes later and two minutes into injury time, with Spain still in search of an equaliser, he picked the ball up wide on the left. Marauding into Spanish territory, he quickly cut inside Carlos Puyol and fired inside Iker Casillas' near post. He was back and with a bang that could be heard from Paris to Pamplona.

Next up was a date with tournament favourites Brazil. Fifty-six minutes into the game France were awarded a free kick wide on the left when Cafu fouled Florent Malouda. Zidane stood over the ball once again. He spotted that the Brazilian defence had gone to sleep at the back post and aimed for that area. Within moments Henry had put France into the lead and the striker was celebrating with his team-mates.

Zidane, however, stood apart from the rest, smiling to himself. Just as with the match against Spain, it was he who separated the two sides. At one stage he held off Kaká while juggling the ball and later he would knock it over Ronaldo's head, making the World Cup winner look like a lost schoolboy searching for his mother. "He ran the game," wrote Amy Lawrence for The Observer. "From the first moment, when he signalled his intent by carving through the yellow shirts, to the last, when he pushed up front in search of the killer goal. And in between he delivered the most memorable touches, the sweetest moves." Henry's goal was enough to win the game for France. They were through to the semi-finals where they would face Portugal.

Those who fail to learn from history are bound to repeat it and Portugal failed to learn. In Euro 2000 they gave away a penalty to lose 2-1 to France in the semi-finals and it happened again in Germany. Henry needed no invitation to hit the ground in the box but an experienced defender such as Ricardo Carvalho should really have known better than to be putting in such a challenge in such a situation. The Portuguese keeper, Ricardo, may have been able to halt England but he could not do the same to Zidane, whose two-step run up and crisp finish had too much power for him to keep out. Zidane's goal was enough to win the game for France and set up a final with Italy.

The statue that commemorates that moment stands around 16 feet tall, almost three times as high as the two men its story centres on. And yet it could have been all so different. Zidane had given France the lead in the final in the most audacious fashion. There cannot be too many players who would have the confidence and audacity to successfully execute a Panenka in a World Cup final but Zidane did. Deep in extra-time he almost doubled his goal count for the game. Just outside the Italian area, he played the ball to Willy Sagnol out on the right-hand side, before moving through the opposition defence with all the silence and stealth of a spy on a secret mission. Sagnol's cross was met with a powerful header from his captain that forced Buffon to tip the ball over the bar with a most magnificent save.

The various videos and angles of the build-up to the headbutt show Materazzi’s mouth moving but his words can only be heard by one person, the one person who matters, the one person Materazzi wants to hear. Despite the scurrilous and evidence-free accusations printed by some newspapers, the defender’s words were not about his opponent’s religion or ethnicity. “I prefer the whore that is your sister,” Materazzi would later admit to saying. It was the sort of schoolboy insult that Zidane, and thousands of other professional footballers, must have heard from fans, and indeed fellow players, on a regular basis. Something, however, snapped that evening in Berlin and in Zidane. All the beauty and brilliance of his play in the knockout stages melted away and what was left was his anger and aggression. “I tried not to listen to him but he repeated them several times,” said Zidane. “Sometimes words are harder than blows. When he said it for the third time, I reacted.”

Zidane had already taken some steps past the Italian defender when the red mist descended like a fog on Dickensian London. He lent forward, lowered his head and rutted like a deer in mating season. Afterwards, his opponent clutched the ground and his chest like a drunk their last bottle. Zidane’s stare communicates his sheer contempt for Materazzi and his words. “I would have rather been knocked down than hear that,” he said. Pandemonium then took hold on and off the pitch and within moments Zidane was gone. Perhaps the most iconic image of 2006 World Cup is not the dark-eyed Zidane standing over a stricken Materazzi but the picture of the solitary Zidane walking past the glistening World Cup trophy on his way back to the dressing room. So near and yet so far.

After his goodbye speech in the dressing-room to his retiring captain was done, Domenech began the applause, but "there was only the grinding of teeth" the French manager said. "Certain players really hated their captain." They were not the only ones who were dismayed and disappointed by Zidane's actions. Le Figaro called his head-butt "odious" while L'Equipe's front page asked: "What should we tell our children, for whom you have become an example for ever? . . . How could that happen to a man like you?" Frank Leboeuf, meanwhile, described himself as "ashamed" by the actions of his former team-mate.

Zidane could have been forgiven for feeling a sense of trepidation upon his return to France. He would have been aware of the reception that greeted his Real Madrid team-mate David Beckham after he arrived back in England in 1998 following his sending-off against Argentina. France, however, was different. There was no need for armed guards and there was no burning of Zidane effigies. Instead, the Place de la Concorde was filled with thousands of fans waving flags and rhythmically chanting "Zizou! Zizou!" like monks in a monastery worshipping a higher power.

Jacques Chirac, the president of France, led the tributes. "The match you played last night was full of talent and professionalism," he said. "I know that you are sad and disappointed but what I want to tell you is that the whole country is extremely proud of you. You have honoured the country with your exceptional qualities and your fantastic fighting spirit, which was your strength in difficult times, but also in winning times."

Chirac’s words may have seemed to be a touch excessive but they reflected what the people wanted to hear. Polls done in the immediate wake of the incident backed up the public shows of support for Zidane: 61% of French people said they had already forgiven him for his actions while 52% said they understood them.

His bones had ached, his form had dipped but Zidane managed to conjure up a final, extended piece of magic to woo the world. His performances after the group stages, according to Auclair, “ranked among his finest in a blue shirt”. Not many would argue against that.

Before the tournament, few in France could have hoped that the team would come within a penalty shoot-out of winning but Zidane had given them hope. “For a month, France was dreaming with Zidane” wrote Libération but that dream was dashed the moment Materazzi opened his mouth and Zidane turned to face him. And yet the people of France would not let that moment of madness tarnish all that he had given them throughout his career. As one French writer said at the time: “It’s good for us to see our national hero is fallible.” - Guardian Service