Golden Goal: Stories of Soccer Legends

Golden Goal #8: Zidane

Brandon Kelley

The World Cup is soccer’s biggest stage because it is so difficult to attain. It only occurs once every four years, and because of its status as an international competition, putting a team together is something of an art-form combined with the world’s biggest lottery. You have to hope that out of an entire generation of players, a couple dozen might emerge that is the best in the world. Getting to the World Cup final, then, on the cusp of such greatness, the product of decades of development and chance, is treated with reverence. Only eight countries have ever won the 21 men’s World Cups ever played, and standing at the edge of such an exclusive group brings a sense of awe, as well as immense pressure.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi on July 9th, 2006, it would instantly be written into soccer’s history’s books as one of the game’s most infamous moments. A star player, a legend for club and country, the captain of his team, Zidane was playing in his last ever game, and ended it by sending his team a man down in the World Cup final, when they needed him the most.  

This is the story of Zinedine Zidane’s regret. But it’s also the story of how he refused to let one moment define his career.

Zidane...oh goodness gracious me, that is absolutely magnificent from Zinedine Zidane

I’m Brandon Kelley, welcome to Golden Goal: soccer’s greatest stars and the moments that made them.

Even if you only ever pay attention to the World Cup every four years, and that’s all of your exposure to soccer, you probably remember Zidane and the headbutt. It was endlessly discussed, dissected, denounced, and lampooned, to the point where the headbutt transcended soccer culture and just became a legendary sports moment in general. To people that didn’t follow soccer, it was a moment of hilarity, watching Zidane opt to start a fight with a headbutt to the chest, while Materazzi fell to the ground screaming as if he had been harpooned.  

To fans of the game, however, and especially to those heavily invested in the French and Italian sides competing in that World Cup final, it was one of the most shocking moments the game had ever seen. Here was one of the best players in the world, in the dying minutes of a tied game, who so lost control of his emotions that he was kicked out of the match. The images of Zidane’s headbutt, as well as him walking past the World Cup trophy, head down, became instantly iconic images of the 2006 World Cup, even more so than the images of Italy raising that Cup after beating France in the ensuing penalty shoot out.

...goal!!!...(italian broadcast)

How did it come to this?

Zidane, like so many other French superstars, is the child of immigrants. His parents emigrated to France from Algeria several years before his birth. He took to soccer at an early age, and was transfixed by Diego Maradona’s performance at the 1986 World Cup, in which Maradona put on one of the greatest tournament-long performances in World Cup history. By the age of 14, he had already been picked up by a French side, AS Cannes, and was well on his way to a promising career. He made his professional debut only three years after Maradona’s World Cup heroics. His profile quickly grew in France, and soon enough he joined Italian giants Juventus. And then, in 1998, Zidane appeared in his first ever World Cup. That year’s tournament was played in France.

France had never won a World Cup, but they made short work of their group stage opponents, albeit with a small caveat: Zidane became the first French player ever to receive a red card at a World Cup tournament for stomping on a Saudi Arabian player. France won their first knockout round game without him, however, and upon his return, he helped France beat Italy on penalty kicks. It wasn’t until the final, however, that Zidane would leave an indelible mark: he scored two goals in the first half against Brazil, helping to wrap up a famous and first World Cup victory for France at the Stade de France, of all places. He was a national hero, able to bring his country the glory that so few other teams had tasted, and he did it right on their doorstep. The celebrations for the team in Paris saw more than one million people gather along the Champs-Elysees to see the team parade with the World Cup, and on Zidane himself was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe, alongside the words “Merci Zizou.” It is impossible to get more French than that.

Zidane was recognized as one of the best and most beloved players in the world, and he followed his World Cup heroics by moving to one of the world’s biggest teams: Real Madrid. He soon scored in a final again, helping Real Madrid win Europe’s biggest prize, the Champions League. In fact, by the time the 2006 World Cup rolled around, he had already won almost all there was to win as a player. He retired from International play in 2004. But France, who struggled to qualify for the ‘06 World Cup, convinced their talisman that they needed him once more, and Zidane accepted.

France really did need him. Zizou propelled the team who struggled to even qualify for the tournament through the knockout rounds, defeating Spain with a goal and an assist, adding another assist against Brazil in the quarterfinals, and scoring the decisive penalty against Portugal in the semifinals to send France back to the finals once more.

And that’s where it all, famously, fell apart. After scoring yet another brilliant penalty in the first half, Italy equalized in the second half from a corner kick, and the game finished tied. With extra-time dwindling and penalty kicks looming, Italian player Marco Materazzi said a couple words to Zidane. And Zidane responded by turning around and headbutting him into the ground.

Wow...Marco Materazzi gets crushed by Zidane, and again away from the play, so Elizando never saw that...

What was actually said? Reports differ. Materazzi himself said that after Zidane got frustrated with Materazzi for pulling his shirt, Zidane told him he would give it to him after the match. Materazzi responded by saying he’d rather have Zidane’s sister. Understandably, Zidane didn’t take kindly to the sentiment. And even years after the match, he claimed he “would rather die” than apologize to Materazzi.

France lost the penalty shootout without Zidane, their primary penalty-taker, and Italy won the World Cup. The headbutt was the last thing Zidane ever did as a professional soccer player. A lasting legacy.  

But France still welcomed its hero back, and tributes to Zidane began pouring in. He had easily been the best French player of the tournament, and most of France understood and readily forgave him for losing his temper. He was a hero and legend, still, especially to France’s large Algerian community, and not even the act of losing a World Cup so dramatically would change that.

Zidane wasn’t quite finished with soccer, either. It only took four years after the headbutt for Zidane to become involved with the Real Madrid coaching staff, and ten years for him to climb through the ranks as an assistant, and a reserve head coach, until finally taking the realms as manager of the legendary club. And he didn’t just do well: he smashed records, becoming the first manager to ever win three Champions Leagues in a row, guiding an aging Real Madrid side to glory.  

What do we make of Zidane, whose most memorable moment is still one he is least proud of? One of the best players to ever play, only to be mostly remembered for a red card, putting his team at a disadvantage in a World Cup final they would lose? Maybe soccer’s most memorable moments do mark people forever. But if Zidane is anything to go off of, they don’t determine a player’s legacy. Or a manager’s, either.