There Are No Words for Zidane's Head Butt

July 9, 2006
BERLIN — There is some precedent for Zinedine Zidane's unceremonious ejection from the World Cup final Sunday night for his startling head butt that floored Italy's Marco Materazzi.


In 1998, when France was on its way to its only world championship, Zidane stomped on an opposing player from Saudi Arabia during a French victory in the first round. He claimed it was accidental but was red-carded and suspended for two matches.

At the time, there was no explanation for the foul, but it later emerged that the Saudi player, team captain Fuad Amin, had verbally provoked Zidane, who is of French and Algerian ancestry.

The same thing might have happened Sunday, but Zidane was not made available to explain his actions, and France Coach Raymond Domenech could only speculate.

"To see him finish his career in this way is sad," Domenech said. "When one takes what he had to for 80 minutes and the referee doesn't do anything, one understands. You can't excuse it, but you can understand it."

Had Materazzi provoked Zidane, Domenech was asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I think Materazzi was perhaps involved. Something must have happened. I don't think Zidane decided out of the blue to react in such a way that he was sent off."

The incident was peculiar in every way.

Materazzi was caught on camera clutching Zidane around the chest and holding his shirt, but it was apparently a harmless foul. Something might well have been said, though.

The two players then jogged back toward the midfield, with Zidane overtaking Materazzi, then suddenly turning to face him. Without warning, he lowered his head and rammed it into Materazzi's chest with quite a bit of power.

Materazzi fell backward, then curled up in a ball.

"I don't know what Materazzi said to Zidane," Domenech said. "But it's a shame. It's sad. He [Materazzi] did a lot of acting, and for such a big man, a gust of wind made him fall over. It's regrettable."

It was hardly a gust of wind, though.

Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, incensed, ran over to the assistant referee, pointed to his own eyes and then to the official, as if to say, "Did you see that?"

Zidane stood and waited to see what would happen, but he pulled off his captain's armband, indicating that he knew he was going to be expelled. Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo consulted the assistant, then ran over to Zidane, reached into his back pocket for the red card and brandished it at the player.

Zidane's World Cup, and his career, were over. He trudged to the sideline, stripping the bandage off his wrist while doing so. He did not argue the call.

The French managed to hold on and preserve the tie after overtime, but Zidane's absence for the penalty kicks was sorely felt. Domenech said his team lost heart after the incident.

"Yes, we can say that Zidane being sent off was the killing moment of the game," he said. "Especially in extra time — the Italian team were obviously waiting for the penalty shootout."

Zidane, a three-time FIFA world player of the year, has a temper, which is perhaps why he remained silent during the 2006 tournament. His only media appearance came before France's opener against Switzerland.

Aime Jacquet, who coached France to its 1998 triumph, when Zidane scored twice in a 3-0 victory over Brazil in the final, said Zidane must have been angered.

"Maybe he was provoked," Jacquet told France's Canal Plus TV. "It's awful to see him leave that way, because I sincerely believed he would lift that trophy."

Jacquet might also have recalled what he told the media after Zidane's 1998 expulsion: "He will pay for it," Jacquet said at the time. "His gesture had to be punished. We have been talking to our players about this for a long time. They must stay calm. They must show self-control."

Eight years later, the lesson had not been learned.