A French reporter wrote, "It's good for us to see our national hero is fallible." When life seemed to be laid out on a plate and devoured by the hero, a debacle befalls him.
The day an entire nation came crashing down due to the petty words of a stricken Italian. The day Zinedine Zidane walked out contrite from the football field. No event had such a bearing on the World Cup as this one.
A shock defeat to Greece and Zidane had decided to end his international career after Euro 2004. He had achieved everything at the grandest stage of them all and had carried the team for a better part of the decade.
Now, as the moment lay upon him, he decided he would play his last match for France, thereby ending one of the greatest careers of all time. No more than a year later, rumours of a return started to surface. He had clearly ended his career a year ago and yet, people chose to overlook that and yearn for his return. While the end of his career signaled a new revolution in the French team, it just wasn’t the same.
France was a good team, but Zidane was the myth behind their success. France just wasn’t the same without him.
A derailed France that had been off-track in the qualifying campaign suddenly seemed to be back. Zidane had announced his return. The French supporters were rejoicing. The man who had won them their only World Cup was returning to reinstate their supremacy in world football. Zidane’s return was the trigger to restoring the balance. It was not only the fans, the players too were ecstatic.
Thierry Henry proudly stated, "In France, everybody realiZed that God exists, and that he is back in the French international team. God is back, there is little left to say".
A revered figure in France, Zidane was the only beacon of hope for every French supporter who dreamt of a second trophy in eight years. Honestly, France’s three previous years had been terrible. They had been eliminated in the first round as defending Champions and the Euro 2004 had just piled on their misery.
Zinedine Zidane had inspired the return of two other instrumental players, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele.
The manager, to his demerit had looked clueless in the first phase of the qualifying. While on paper the French were undefeated, they had performed unconvincingly and several stalemates against low-ranked oppositions had clearly staked up the return of the trio.
Just as the world had expected, Zidane’s return brought team out of the hasty predicament and they started churning out positive results. Playing four more matches, they dropped just two points and qualified for the World Cup from the top of their group, heaving a sigh of relief while at the same time, the return of Zidane started to raise expectations for the finals. Just as the people started gearing up for the World Cup, Zidane dropped a bombshell. He came out with a statement that he would retire from club football as the season preceding the World Cup ended.
Zidane was leaving football for good. Come the World Cup, everyone would see Zidane touch a football for the last time. There would no longer be a left-footed volley from nowhere, no longer would Maldini fear any player nor would any defender have to be a victim of the dreaded roulette from Zidane.
The World Cup
France’s first two matches had ended in stalemates and Zidane had failed to make any imprint on the same. Zidane had been so poor that the manager replaced him in the 87th minute in the second match. He had earned a yellow card in each match and was suspended for the final game. The team had been immersed in joy over the return of Zidane. Now, they were lying down exonerated after two matches of disbelief.
The brewing ignominy was far from futile as the poor performances were really getting into the fans. As they faced Togo in a must-win situation, the French sailed through. Although Togo were a relatively weak team, it took the French 55 minutes to break the deadlock. Patrick Vieira had done it and Henry followed it with another.
As the final whistle resonated across the stadium, France heaved a sigh of relief. This had to stop. They weren’t any side that was playing football for the first time in years. As France drew Spain in the round of 16, the footballing world was skeptic. Spain had been very impressive in the group stage and the odds were tilted towards them overpowering the disheartened Les Blues.
As the match progressed, the score was 1-1 with seven minutes left. France won a free-kick on the right. Zidane curled in the ball, it took a deflection and Patrick Vieira in the far post, heads it home. A glimmer at the end of the tunnel. Vieira had made an entire nation rise after month of darkness. As the excitement had yet to sink in, the French would assert their ambitions.
Thierry Henry was against Puyol, he passes to Zidane, Zidane carries the ball on the left wing, Puyol stretches his legs, Zidane skips the challenge and a low shot sending Casillas the wrong way.
Zidane was back. And he was back with a bang. He was fit and firing. The greatest player of the last two decades had marked his return to form with a delightful goal. The French were ecstatic. The goal didn’t matter but the man who scored it made the day. Zinedine Zidane was back and that was the headline.The Spanish players were left ruing their loss while the Selecao stood next on France’s road to glory.
The defending Champions were one of the favourites and the thought of Zidane facing the team he defeated eight years back was one to relish. Once again, Zidane would deliver an inch perfect free kick for an unmarked Thierry Henry to volley it home. But that wasn’t the highlight of the match. Amongst 22 players, Zidane stood out. That was a dream performance from Zidane and what a time to bring out his best.
As the notions were before the tournament, Zidane had been the difference. He made it happen. He reduced the mighty Brazilian side to mere spectators watching him mesmerize the world. The semifinals rang a bell, France would face Portugal. Portugal had been on a roll. But, France wouldn’t budge. As Ricardo Carvalho extended his foot, Henry was quite welcome to make contact and won a penalty for France.
Zidane stepped up. There was neither a stuttering run-up nor any mind games with the goalkeeper. He stood in front of the ball and calmly slotted it past the goalkeeper. That had done the job for France. After four years of utter madness and indecision, they had finally arrived upon the grandest stage of them all.
The Azurri were no less. Captained by Fabio Cannavaro and a certain Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings in midfield, Marcelo Lippi at the sidelines capped off what was one of the most complete sides in modern football.
When the match begun, the onus was on Zidane to complete his career with a second World Cup. What started in Cannes would culminate in Berlin with Zidane potentially walking home the greatest footballer mankind had ever seen.
Six minutes into the match and Marco Materazzi would bring down Malouda inside the box. The referee blew the whistle and pointed to the spot.
Just like the semifinals, Zidane stepped up. Buffon would firmly have his eyes on the ball. Zidane takes his time; he raises his foot by an extra inch, Buffon chooses to dive. Zidane brings his foot to the underside of the ball and the ball travels straight over with a momentary lift.
It hits the crossbar, crosses the goal line on the rebound. The referee awards the goal and Zidane does nothing more than a fist pump to celebrate. No one, in their wildest dreams imagined Zidane would do such a thing.
After all, who would have the audacity to chip Gianluigi Buffon in the World Cup final? Perhaps, only Zidane. That goal defined Zidane. It showcased the player that he was. The perfect chip and an occasion to mark it.
However, parity was restored by the man who would go on to define the match, Marco Materazzi. As the teams played out an excruciating battle without a goal for the rest of normal time, 1-1 read the scoreline. 15 minutes into extra time and the scoreline had yet to change.
With 12 minutes to go, Buffon took a goal kick. As Del Piero made an attempt to bring the ball down, he gave away a foul and the French had a soft free kick.
The referee turned around. It was mayhem the world over. Marcelo Lippi had gone wild on the touchline. Gianlungi Buffon was arguing with the linesman. Marco Materazzi lay on the ground. While Zidane was walking away from the scene.
The referee had just failed to bear witness to one of the most iconic acts in the history of the World Cup. The Italian players were furious.
Zidane had just headbutted Materazzi and committed what was perhaps the greatest misdeed of his career.
The referee walked to speak with the linesman. He put his hand in the back pocket and out came the red. In the 76-year history of the World Cup, no sending off was as dynamic as this one. The world came to a standstill. France came to a halt. They didn’t realize what they had just witnessed.
As Zidane removed his arm band, we knew. The world’s greatest player had ruined his own swansong.
“I prefer the whore that is your sister”, those words which had triggered Zidane.
Once he passed it off, second time the blood boiled and the third, he reacted. Materazzi, a man who enjoyed the sweet smell of schadenfraude had destroyed Zidane. And what did he get in return, the World Cup.
The expedient image of a ruptured Zidane standing across the wincing figure of Materazzi sent ripples across the footballing world. In a metrical campaign, one moment of madness to destroy to it all.
The guilt-laden genius of Zidane walked out with his eyes glimpsing towards the World Cup trophy for one last time. A walk of shame to commemorate one of the most decorated careers in modern football.
That’s how life works, doesn’t it? To seethe at the relentless pursuit of glory by a footballer that ends up discriminating the family of an opponent. Materazzi knew how to get under the skin of his opponent.
The departure of Zidane had sent shockwaves across the footballing world and the Les Blues were too stunned to even react. To describe the situation in words would be impossible, seemingly as my hands tremble while writing this.
They were destroyed. Italy won the shootout. It was always a straightforward result after the sending off. We knew it, we only needed to see it happen.
As Cannavaro lifted the trophy, the French looked up in awe. They had just lost out on the most prestigious trophy in football by a whisper. A whisper by Materazzi and that was all it took to shatter their dreams.
The players were angry, so was the coach. But not the world. While the debacle still remains one of the worst ever in sports, Zidane had cemented his legacy far beyond the headbutt.
Zidane was a truly, one-of-a-kind player whom the French were gifted to stake claim as their own. When you look back at the pages of history, Zidane’s route to immortality was incomplete and a 16-ft statue was all that stood between him and immortality.
Nothing is greater than family! Zidane’s ultimate message to the world.