On July 9, 2006, Italy defeated France in a penalty shootout to lift the Fifa World Cup trophy for the fourth time. As unforgettable as their performance that night in Berlin (and indeed, the rest of the tournament) was, the match is remembered just as much for Zinedine Zidane’s moment of violent conduct.
The infamous headbutt as he sent Marco Materazzi down to the turf. Despite scoring their respective teams’ goals, the moment in the limelight was yet to come for the feisty duo.
It was the 110th minute of the match, deep into extra time, and the two teams were locked at 1-1. Zidane had given France an early lead in the contest with the most audacious kick from the penalty spot, but a booming header from Materazzi had drawn Italy level.
And then came a moment that stunned the millions who were watching from across the globe.
Zidane jogged past Materazzi as Italy thwarted an attack and cleared their lines, only to turn unexpectedly and drill his head into the defender’s chest. It was a jaw-dropping moment if there ever was one; a moment that would go a long way in defining the legacy of that World Cup.
The incident wasn’t caught on camera initially. Even referee Horacio Elizondo from Argentina and the closest linesperson hadn’t seen what had happened. It was only after the assistant referee was consulted that a decision was made. The officials were convinced that the headbutt did take place and a straight red card was shown to Zidane. Television replays soon vindicated the decision.
Here is the video of the headbutt:
Zidane’s marching orders marked the end of his international career. He was to retire after that game and the red card was to an extent, an ugly footnote on what was a truly phenomenal 17-year period as a professional footballer.
Having scored twice in France’s victory in the 1998 World Cup final on home soil in Paris, the midfielder had played a starring role in the 2006 edition of the tournament too. He scored in the second-round win over Spain, in the semi-final against Portugal, and had assisted Thierry Henry’s quarter-final winner against Brazil, in a match where he had produced one of the most influential one-man displays in the tournament’s history.
The sight of Zidane walking into the tunnel with his head bowed down after getting the red card was heartbreaking for many a football fan. Here was a player who had enthralled audiences with his mesmerising skills for nearly two decades, won nearly every accolade there was in club and international football, but the end that was in store for him was anything but glorious. The fact that he edged Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro to the Golden Ball award for the tournament capped off the irony.
Highlights of the 2006 Fifa World Cup final:
Even as Zidane was given a hero’s welcome when his team returned to France, the one question on everyone’s mind was why did he do what he did. With all that was at stake, what could possibly have prompted the then 34-year-old to lose control in such spectacular fashion?
In an interview with French TV channel Canal Plus soon after, Zidane shared his side of the story. While apologising for his actions to the millions who watched the game, he claimed that Materazzi had said some “very hard words” about his mother and sister to provoke him.
“You hear them once and you try to move away. But then you hear them twice, and then a third time,” said Zidane. “I am a man and some words are harder to hear than actions. I would rather have taken a blow to the face than hear that. It was inexcusable. I apologise. But I can’t regret what I did because it would mean that he was right to say all that.”
Zidane added: “We always talk about the reaction, and obviously it must be punished. But if there is no provocation, there is no need to react. Above all it was a very serious provocation. It was an inexcusable gesture but the real culprit is the person who provoked it. Do you imagine that in a World Cup final like that with just 10 minutes to go to the end of my career, I am going to do something like that because it gives me pleasure?”
Zidane’s interview after the headbutt:
Back then, the BBC had brought in lip-reading experts to try and decipher exactly what Materazzi said to Zidane on the pitch. The experts concluded that the Italian first told the Frenchman that he was “the son of a terrorist whore”, before asking him to “calm down” and terming him a “liar”, then wishing “an ugly death to you and your family”, and finally saying “go f*** yourself”.
On his part, Materazzi had denied passing any comment on Zidane’s mother. The defender, who would go on to become the player-manager of Indian Super League side Chennaiyin FC in 2014, said that the Frenchman was “his hero”.
“I didn’t mention anything about religion, politics or racism. I didn’t insult his mother. I lost my mother when I was 15 years old and still get emotional when I talk about it. Zidane is my hero and I have always admired him a lot,” Materazzi was quoted as saying by Italian newspaper La Gazetta dello Sport.
“It was the kind of insult you will hear dozens of times and just slips out on the field. I didn’t call Zidane a terrorist and certainly didn’t mention his mother. I did not bring up Zidane’s mother; for me a mother is sacred. I held his shirt, for only a few seconds. He turned towards me and scoffed at me, looking at me with super arrogance, up and down. He said ‘if you really want my shirt, you can have it later’. It’s true, I shot back with an insult.”
We will probably never truly hear the entire story about ‘the headbutt’ but for football fans, this was an unforgettable moment in more ways than one.