No. 22: Zidane Loses His Head, (Germany, 2006)
Soccer is a game that can render you speechless. In awe at what you’ve just seen, dumfounded by what has happened out on the pitch.
World Cup finals are occasions that regularly give rise to a bout of speechlessness. Typically due to the sheer drama they concoct, the outpouring of emotion we see from teams who have won the trophy and the raw despair that grips the runners up.
But in the 2006 World Cup final, Zinedine Zidane left jaws on the floor. Not—as he typically did throughout his career—because of his majestic footballing ability, but because of something all the more shocking.
The Germany finals had been wonderful for France and Zidane. After a disastrous defence of their title in the 2002 tournament, Les Bleus came into this World Cup with a point to prove. Inspired by their 34-year-old talisman Zidane and a swansong from a host of the team’s experienced players, the French plotted a route to the final.
Admittedly, they started poorly, with draws against Switzerland and South Korea in their opening two group games. But after they beat Togo and confirmed their place in the last-16, the French were galvanized.
From the last-16 onwards, Zidane came into his own. He turned back the clock to produce some stunning performances against Spain, Brazil and then Portugal in the semi-final.
Just four years after the desolation that had accompanied the 2002 World Cup, the French were in the final again, inspired by the man who had helped them to their first ever World Cup victory eight years ago.
Their opponents were Italy and when Zidane gave Les Bleus the lead from the penalty spot—his third goal in five of the knockout games—the French were dreaming of their second World Cup win. But Marco Materazzi leveled for the Azzurri with a towering header in the 19th minute.
The rest of the game was a tight, tetchy affair, with neither team keen on risking the possibility of defeat. Subsequently, the game went into extra-time and in the 110th minute, out of the blue, Zidane was shown a red card.
Initially, the decision was shrouded in confusion, with TV cameras not picking up the incident in real time. But replays showed why the referee had to show the red card to Zizou:
What Happened Next?
Italy went on to lift the trophy after winning on penalties and Zidane never played a professional game again. The reason for his attack on Materazzi was initially unknown but in the aftermath of the contest, it transpired that the Italian central defender had provoked Zidane, insulting his mother and sister.
Despite an initial hyperbole in the French media—L’Equipe ran with the headline “What should we tell our children, for whom you have become an example for ever? … How could that happen to a man like you?”—an acceptance of Zidane’s actions became the norm.
He produced some stunning performances during the 2006 tournament and gave the national side its pride back after their capitulation in Japan & South Korea. For that, the French public were grateful.