World Cup Part 19: France v Italy, 2006

ZACH HICKS remembers Zidane’s moment of madness in 2006, Materazzi’s lack of sportsmanship, and the legacies of the two men

When we talk about the greatest player of all time, we all bring our certain biases. Mine is about 6’1” and French. I am not too loud about it, I’ll happily indulge in conversations about Pelé or Cristiano Ronaldo or possibly even an Argentine legend like Alfredo Di Stéfano as being the best ever, but my heart loves the game of Zinedine Zidane like no other.

The first time I ever watched European football, it was Zidane’s 2002 Real Madrid Galácticos squad, and Zizou was my favourite player. In the 2006 World Cup – which I mostly watched in Spanish because my parents didn’t have cable – my own United States were absolutely woeful, so once the group stages were over I was all about seeing my hero and his French side win the tournament. Things went exceptionally well through the knockout stages. Zidane had a strong tournament and France advanced to the final against Italy and their unbelievable lineup.

Much is made of the current Italian centre-backs, and for good reason. Chiellini, Barzagli, and Bonucci are wonderful, but Fabio Cannavaro was something completely different. Please understand that the same year this game was played he won the Ballon d’Or as a defender. They also boasted now legendary players such as Buffon, Pirlo, Totti, De Rossi, and Nesta.

They also had a man named Marco Materazzi. Materazzi was a fine player. He won five Scudettos, a Champions League, and was named Serie A Defender of the Year while with Inter Milan during their most recent heyday, but to this day I can only think of one thing when I hear his name.

Materazzi had been the man who conceded a penalty to Zidane early in the match, and he scored to bring the two sides level soon thereafter, but neither of those plays stick out in my mind. Instead, I think of the 110th minute of the match when the man I saw as the consummate professional, the purest definition of control on the pitch, the best player I had ever seen, absolutely lose his mind all because of Marco Materazzi.

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I didn’t even catch it in live time. The play was nowhere near either player and all I heard was that an Italian player was down. I was worried about him. I never should have felt bad for Materazzi in the slightest.

Don’t get me wrong. Zidane deserved a red. You can’t headbutt an opponent in the middle of the field completely unrelated to the game. It just isn’t done. But Materazzi was a coward through-and-through in that situation. First off, there’s what he said to Zinedine Zidane. As Materazzi admitted in 2016, he took the time to insult a man’s sister in the middle of a soccer match. Poor sportsmanship and pettiness, clearly.

But it didn’t stop there. Materazzi made a meal of the contact, falling on the ground like a spoiled child and writhing in supposed agony until the great man he had baited had been fully removed from the match. Understand, there was no victim in that situation. Zidane was absolutely wrong for what he did and Materazzi was spineless in everything he did to provoke and react to it.

When I realized what was happening, I literally yelled that the tv “Zizou no!” We all knew it was Zidane’s last game, and as one of his biggest fans here in the States, it’s the absolute last way I wanted him to go out.

The game ended on penalties and I cannot say in good conscience that the headbutt would have dramatically changed anything. Italy made all of their penalties, France did not, and there’s no evidence that they would have made all of theirs even if Zidane had been on the pitch to make one.

Unfortunately, the final of the most prestigious tournament in the entire world was permanently scarred by the entire episode. Instead of being a competition between mutually honourable competitors representing their nations with class, we saw the smallness of one man and the inner madness of another. The penalties themselves that decided the game lacked their normal panache because the thought in the back of everyone’s mind was that the great Zinedine Zidane would not be given his chance to put his final kick of the ball into the net.

It is fitting, to me, that Zidane has gone on to managerial greatness while Materazzi has never managed more than a brief stint in the Indian League. We all have our biases in football, and according to mine, this fact fits the deserved legacy of each man.

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