The re-unification of Germany and the French national team had made the 2006 World Cup a resounding hit. The German wall had fallen in 1990, the one in Raymond Domenech’s team was intact halfway through Les Blues’ qualification campaign and had almost resulted in them missing the tournament altogether.
Two draws against Israel and one each against the Republic of Ireland and Switzerland had France reeling after their opening six games of qualification. However, the return of Zinedine Zidane, followed by Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram from retirement, galvanised the team into winning their group and making it to Germany.
Not everyone was convinced by France’s chances of progression in the World Cup, though. Marcel Desailly, Youri Djorkaeff, Bixente Lizarazu, Robert Pires, Christophe Dugarry, Sylvain Wiltord, Emmanuel Petit and Frank Leboeuf had hung up their boots after a Euro 2004 quarter-final loss to eventual champions Greece.
The quirky Raymond Domenech
Jacques Santini had gone and the quirky Domenech had arrived. The former Lyon manager had been in charge of the Under-21 French team for 12 years and he was a surprise choice to replace Santini.
The farce of their 2002 World Cup defence in South Korea and Japan had scarred France and a middling Euro 2004 campaign had seen more of the golden generation play for the last time in blue.
The bickering within the team had taken a toll on their talisman, who was happy playing for Real Madrid after 2004. The tensions between the 33-year-old Zidane and Domenech, and an ageing squad, saw very few take the punt that the French national anthem would be played at the Olympiastadion on July 9, the day of the final.
Clubbed together with qualification opponents Switzerland, Togo and South Korea, France lumbered through their group. Another group-stage exit looked likely after France earned only one point from their first two games.
Zidane had openly advocated playing David Trezeguet alongside Thierry Henry in a two-striker system, while Domenech had rejected this notion. The France manager had been lampooned in the national press for rejecting Pires because he was a Scorpio, dropping Ludovic Guily for an unheralded Franck Ribery, and for openly stating that he would start a soon-to-be-35 Fabian Barthez over Gregory Coupet.
Zidane carries France on his shoulders
Zidane had called Domenech “not a coach” and had stated that “France hadn’t played like a team” after their 0-0 draw to Uruguay in their first match of 2010, prior to the now-infamous player revolt that saw Nicolas Anelka sent home.
In hindsight, it was a miracle that the idiosyncratic coach and a team which resembled the footballing version of the Beatles preparing for one final concert should have reached the final. Zidane was the glue that held this bunch together.
The captain had produced a virtuoso performance against holders Brazil in the quarter-finals before packing Portugal off with the winning penalty in the semis.
Their opponents in the final, Italy, had conceded one goal in the tournament till then, an own goal against the United States. The defence had been immense, with Gianluigi Buffon in goal, and Fabio Cannavaro and Gennaro Gattuso in front of him.
Marco Materazzi had replaced Alessandro Nesta in the backline after the latter was taken off against the Czech Republic. He had been at the centre of the action since the kick-off, hauling Florent Malouda in the box. Referee Horacio Elizondo had a big call to make at the Olympiastadion early on, and he made the right one, giving France the opportunity to go ahead through a penalty.
Zidane was ice-cool, not a care in the world, as if no one was watching, as he chipped the spot-kick down the middle, which clipped the underside of the bar before crossing the line. To do that in a World Cup final. He most certainly would have been skewered if he had missed, but instead became the fourth man after Pele, Vava and Paul Breitner to score in two separate World Cup finals.
Materazzi equalised 12 minutes later from an Andrea Pirlo corner. The Matrix had always been a handful in opposition boxes; he was also notorious for getting under the skin of his opponents. The match ended 1-1 in regulation time, which forced an extra 30 minutes to be added to the clock.
A distasteful end to a legendary career
And so it transpired in the 110th minute of the match that Zidane’s international career came to its inglorious end. The man from Marseille appeared goaded, exchanged words with Materazzi, appeared to walk away, only to return and plant his head into the Inter Milan man’s chest.
The referee had missed it and so had the viewers at home, both caught up in the play. Elizondo was filled in by his linesman, who had viewed the entire incident, and he had no choice but to send the offender off. The image of Zidane, head bowed, walking past the World Cup trophy, would become almost as famous as the head-butt itself.
We may never know what provoked this reaction, but we know that Zidane was prone to the occasional fit of rage. The Frenchman earned the 14th dismissal of his career and the dubious reputation of becoming the second man to be shown a red card in two separate finals.
David Trezeguet would miss a penalty in the ensuing shoot-out as Italy would go on to win their fourth world title. It was a cruel twist of fate for the Juventus striker, who scored the golden goal at Euro 2000 to defeat the Italians in the final.
For the Italians, coming after the summer of the Calciopoli scandal, the title was a temporary respite from the troubles at home. Juventus would be forcibly relegated to the second tier for their part in the scandal.
Zidane was adjudged the player of the tournament, perhaps an emotional decision, but the Ballon D’Or and the Fifa Player of the Year award recognised Cannavaro’s hand in Italy’s win.
This wasn’t the last time that Materazzi would be the victim of a head-butt. Gennaro Delvecchio would feel the need to give the World Cup winner from Lecce the Zidane treatment six months after the final of 2006. The meltdown of Berlin will go down as the moment that a champion, a genius, lashed out on the biggest stage of his career with the world watching.