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The Zidane Headbutt

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The Zinedine Zidane headbutt on Italy’s Marco Materazzi is undoubtedly the most controversial exit the sport has ever seen.

The Frenchman had announced that he would retire after the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and it was his inspired form which galvanized a Les Bleus side that had been largely written off before the tournament.

Zidane put France ahead in Berlin with the most nonchalantly taken penalty kick likely to be seen in a World Cup final, only for Materazzi to equalize after 19 minutes with a header.

In extra-time, and with the score level at 1-1, Zidane produced a header of a very different kind. Reacting to shirt tugging and provocation from the Italian defender, Zidane forcefully shoved his head into Materazzi’s chest, sending the defender crashing to the ground.

‘Zizou’ was sent-off by Argentinean referee Horacio Marcelo Elizondo and Italy won the match 5-3 on penalties to become World champions for a fourth time. But much of the post-match talk centered around what Materazzi said to provoke such a reaction from his opponent.

Zidane was giving little away in the days that followed, only offering that the insult was ‘very personal’ and concerned his mother and sister.

"You hear those things once and you try to walk away," he said on July 12, 2006. "That's what I wanted to do because I am retiring. You hear it a second time and then a third time..."

Throughout his career, Materazzi has gained a reputation for his provocative and overly aggressive behavior on the field, his nickname The Matrix, owing to his unpredictable personality. In characteristic fashion, he refused to apologize at the time.

 

The Explanation

 

Materazzi, who has always denied saying anything about Zidane’s mother, shed some light in September of that year on what he had said to provoke the headbutt.

 

He told Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport: "I was tugging his shirt, he said to me 'if you want my shirt so much I'll give it to you afterwards,' I answered that I'd prefer his sister."

He added: "It's not a particularly nice thing to say, I recognise that. But loads of players say worse things.

"I didn't even know he had a sister before all this happened."

In August 2007, the Italian chose an Italian TV listings magazine, Sorrisi e Canzoni (Smiles and Songs) to reveal exactly what he said.

He claimed that after Zidane had ironically offered him his shirt that he had replied: "I'd prefer your whore of a sister", using the Italian word "puttana", meaning whore or tart.

It was nonetheless difficult to explain such extreme violence, although Italian daily La Repubblica suggested that Zidane’s anger stemmed from a feeling that "the honour of a Muslim woman" – his sister Lila - had been impugned.

 

No Apology

 

Zidane claimed in 2010 that he "would rather die" than apologize to Matterazzi.

 

"Of course I reproach myself," Zidane told El País. "But, if I say 'sorry', I would also be admitting that what he himself did was normal. And for me it was not normal.

"Things happen on the pitch. It's happened to me many times. But I could not stand it there. It is not an excuse. But my mother was ill. She was in hospital. This people did not know.

"But it was a bad time. More than once they insulted my mother and I never responded. And [then] it happened. To apologize for this? No. If it was Kaká, a regular guy, a good guy, of course I would have apologized. But not to this one.

"If I ask him forgiveness, I lack respect for myself and for all those I hold dear with all my heart. I apologize to football, to the fans, to the team.

"After the game, I went into the dressing room and told them: 'Forgive me. This doesn't change anything. But sorry everyone.'

"But to him I cannot. Never, never. It would be to dishonor me. I'd rather die. There are evil people. And I don't even want to hear those guys speak."

Materazzi’s response to this was to post a photo on his website of the dismissed Zidane walking past the trophy, along with the message in French 'Merci beaucoup monsieur' ('Thank you very much, sir').

Materazzi was later handed a two-match ban from world governing body FIFA, while Zidane was banned for three games and fined £3,260.

Zidane will undoubtedly be remembered for his remarkable talents on the field but there is little doubt that such an extreme show of temper left a stain on a spectacular career that had transformed him into an icon of world soccer.

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