World Cup 2006: Zidane in danger of fading into the red mist

Three days after Fabio Cannavaro lifted Italy’s fourth World Cup in the Berlin Olympiastadion, the planet still chatters incessantly about Zidane’s heartfelt tribute to Yosser Hughes. Statements and denials, interviews with lip-reading experts and some good old-fashioned “He said, she said…” playground cat-calling: all terribly dignified.

The incident will forever remain a moment that made even the most world-weary plant their bottom jaw on the carpet in amazement. Cantona’s kung-fu kick, Norman Hunter and Frannie Lee beating seven shades out of each other, Paul Gascoigne upsetting the neighbours with an imaginary flute – all infamous moments in the never-ending drama of the beautiful game.

It isn’t restricted to football: basketball’s cross-dressing madman Dennis Rodman proved a few years ago that the Americans are in their own superleague when it comes to a grandstand tantrum. After being sent off, he planted a tàªte-bout squarely in the referee’s face, leaving little need for discussion with the fourth official. As disbelief and outrage spread through the God-fearing U.S. of A, Rodman encored by ripping off his shirt and destroying a water cooler before leaving the arena. None of your sulky, disconsolate walks past the trophy and three days of silent brooding – that’s real showmanship for you Zizou.

Zidane, in case we have forgotten amidst the smoke, mirrors and slow-motion replays was one hell of a footballer and should always be remembered as such. Having already collected every accolade in the game, he answered Raymond Domenech’s call for one last hurrah along with Makelele and Thuram: the return of the ‘Three Musketeers’ gave hope to a country that feared the passing of their golden generation might mean years of football obscurity.

Given Domenech’s obsession with his players’ zodiac signs, Zidane probably fitted the bill perfectly as a Cancer, who (it says here) are ‘intuitive, imaginative and resourceful’ when the planets are aligned. However, should Jupiter be in the wrong place they are prone to becoming ‘over-emotional, hypersensitive and unstable’. How did he miss that? And we thought Sven was badly prepared. Materazzi is a Leo, which supposedly makes him an ideal match for the Frenchman. This probably illustrates that the horoscope business is largely unmitigated crap, but it should also be noted that the former Everton defender shares a birth sign with Mussolini, Slobodan Milosevic and Prince William. That might explain a few things if the lip-reading experts are to be believed.

Zidane’s interview for French TV did little more than prolong the embarrassment. Materazzi, according to an apologetic Zizou, insulted his mother and sister. Materazzi has of course denied everything: “I said nothing to him about race, religion or politics. I did not talk about his mother either.” So that clears that up then. Zidane says he regrets nothing: behind the faà§ade put up by his team mates and countrymen, one can’t help wondering that they don’t quite share the sentiment.

Sepp Blatter, not known for his command of logic has suggested Zidane could be stripped of the Golden Ball, but the FIFA President stressed: “Being presumed innocent until proven otherwise is sacred principle.” Thanks Sepp, at least there are a few billion witnesses to call upon should Zidane’s innocence be questioned. His five-match ban for a similar assault on Hamburg’s Jochen Kientz during a Champions League game could possibly be used in evidence, as might the two game suspension in the 1998 World Cup for a stamp on Fuad Amin should there be any suggestion that the Materazzi incident was a minor aberration on his part.

France’s reaction, from Jacques Chirac to the man on the street is indicative of a nation whose pride has taken the odd head-butt or two recently. A World Cup final loss following a year which saw domestic unrest and failure to win the 2012 Olympics – to demonize a hero to the French immigrant population now would be unthinkable. Criticism of Zidane has consequently been limited and for the public, Materazzi has become the scapegoat. An e-mail of French origin arrived this morning entitled “Materazzi – Sacre Bleu!”: devastating proof that he is an untrustworthy cad in the form of a video montage of several crunching challenges from the new French numéro ennemi public un. The Italian, we can probably conclude, is unlikely to be looking for a move to Ligue 1 any time soon.

This side of La Manche, it may be that the tournament has shown we have a little more in common with our French cousins than the average Euro-skeptic would admit. For Materazzi, read Ronaldo. Calling for the blood of the gravity-sensitive one and his fluttering eyelid in a vain attempt to disguise the fact that that England were woeful, and Rooney the football equivalent of a stroppy teenage Burberry-clad timebomb is as convenient as it is blinkered.

“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football,” a quote from Albert Camus, French-Algerian like Zidane now adorns t-shirts for the thinking football fan: possibly a suitable garment for Zizou to wear around the house in his retirement. Materazzi could probably do with one too.

So adieu, Zidane – you were unquestionably one of the greatest we’ve ever seen, albeit with a bit of a mardy streak, something that no amount of reflective interviews or witch-hunting will ever change. Until just after nine o’clock last Sunday evening, it was a pleasure knowing you.

(French translations courtesy of D. Trotter)