World Cup Part 17: France v Spain, 2006

RYAN PLANT remembers Zidane’s impact at the 2006 World Cup, which was much more than just a headbutt

Though Marcello Lippi’s pragmatic Italian side were victorious at the 2006 edition of the World Cup, one of the tournament’s most emblematic images is that of Frenchman Zinedine Zidane’s famous agonising walk past the prized trophy in the final after being sent off for a headbutt on Marco Materazzi.

Zidane had opened the scoring for Les Bleus with a composed, chipped penalty before Materazzi headed the eventual champions level inside half an hour. The score remained level past 90 minutes and into extra-time.

Zidane was involved in two game-changing moments. First, Gianluigi Buffon tipped his goal-bound header from close range over the crossbar. Soon after, his head was again involved in one of the most memorable moments in football history; in a split second of madness, that shocked the 69,000 present in Berlin’s Olympiastadion and indeed the millions watching at home, he headbutted Materazzi in the chest after a heated verbal exchange.

Referee Horacio Elizondo, after consulting his assistant officials, sent Zidane off. France survived the last ten minutes of extra-time with ten men, but David Trezeguet’s penalty miss meant Fabio Grosso’s spot-kick won Italy their fourth World Cup crown. Sadly, that is the narrative that even the most fanatical football zealots remember Zidane’s World Cup involvement by, which should not be the case.

Whilst a star at Juventus, he was the match-winner on home soil in 1998 as France won the World Cup after an impressive 3-0 final victory against favourites Brazil. Eight years later, five years after a world-record transfer to Real Madrid, he once again bore the brunt of his nation’s expectations on the world stage.

His influence on the France side was unquestionable; he was begged by manager Raymond Domenech to delay his international retirement with Les Bleus struggling to even qualify for the tournament.

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Draws against Switzerland and South Korea, and an unconvincing win against Togo, were enough for Domenech’s side to progress to the round of 16 from second place in Group G; a tough tie against Luis Aragonés’ Spain awaited.

France had began the tournament arguing among themselves, lamenting the apparent shortcomings of both their manager and each other. Spain, on the contrary, were fancied and supremely confident; Domenech had pined for a return to form for Zidane, which would be needed for his team to progress.

The tie began as expected; La Furia Roja went 1-0 in front from the penalty spot through David Villa after Lillian Thuram fouled Pablo Ibáñez inside the opening ten minutes. Franck Ribery soon scored an equaliser before half-time after rounding Iker Casillas to finish into an empty net from Patrick Viera’s expert pass.

This was the two sides’ first meeting in a major international tournament for six years; France were 2-1 victors at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2000 on their way to winning the trophy. In fact, Spain had beaten France just once in 25 years.

Seven minutes from time, after Spain had enjoyed the second half’s better chances, Carles Puyol was penalised for a foul on Thierry Henry. From Zidane’s free-kick, Xabi Alonso’s poor clearing header set up Patrick Vieira to nod France ahead at the near post. Casillas might have pulled off a miraculous save but for a deflection off Sergio Ramos.

Domenech stood still on the touchline until his players’ celebrations confirmed his team’s lead. He had taken a sucker-punch to his pride by coaxing Zidane out of retirement, and he had been widely criticised for caving in to the easy option with his side desperate for inspiration.

Zidane was not done, though. He charged forwards inside stoppage-time to meet Sylvain Wiltord’s chipped pass; he cut inside Puyol and struck his shot to the left, wrongfooting Casillas, to double France’s lead.

For Spain, it was a prolonged nightmare. The joy of waltzing past Ukraine, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in the group stage was lost to a France side with superior experience and quality on the night. Their time soon came, of course, but the saga of 2006 came in a long line of repeated failure on the world stage with undoubted talent in their ranks.

Thereafter, a battle of the heavyweights enchanted France. Brazil were their quarter-final opponents, in a tie jam-packed with trophy-laden, global superstars on either side – Zidane’s France narrowly came out on top, and then beat Portugal, to meet Italy in the final.

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