Four years ago, in the World Cup final, France's Zinedine Zidane defended the honor of his whore sister and ended his career in an unimaginably bizarre fashion. Afterward, David Hirshey bid a sad adieu.
Madness. Can there be any other word for both this World Cup and the way it ended? It would be like Tiger Woods, moments from donning another green jacket at the Masters, bringing his putter down on top of Vijay Singh's skull. Or Michael Jordan stepping up to the free throw line in the final ticks of an NBA championship game and breaking Kobe Bryant's nose with a basketball.
Except this was bigger — a billion people, including Bill Clinton, were watching — and worse.
What odds do you think Ladbrokes was giving on "Minute that Zidane loses his mind, head butts an opponent, gets sent off and goes from savior of his country to an old man with a Vesuvian fuse?" Or to put it another way, what an ironic end to an iconic career!
There are really only two ways to interpret the petit mal that overcame Zizou in the 110th minute:
1) Materazzi said something less than complimentary about his mother's moral rectitude.
2) Zidane had a sudden brain aneurysm and thought by butting his head into Materazzi's chest, he could self-correct it.
And yet, as shocking and abject as Zizou's fall from grace is, it should not take away from Italy's coronation. Not only did they win the World Cup, they won it under conditions that would certainly have broken players of lesser resolve than Cannavarro, Gattuso and Buffon. Into each game, the Azzurri carried the taint of the match-fixing scandal, the sadness of their former teammate Pesotto's suicide attempt and the uncertainty of their own futures in Italian soccer. At times they whined and flopped and dove under the strain, but they never buckled. As Grosso's penalty kick bulged the net, his scream of redemption could be heard throughout the courthouses of Italy. We are not criminals, it seemed to say, we are champions. Equally eloquent, Gattuso bared his ass to the world as if to invite all of those Italy-bashers to pucker up.
And yet, for all their triumphant celebrations, Italy could just as easily been the ones crying in their Chianti — and not because of Zidane's meltdown either . I mean, Mon Dieu, what the %$#* was French coach Raymond Domenech thinking when Les Bleus had Italy down, leg weary and out of ideas, deep into the second half ... didn't go for the knockout blow. The part-time actor has always been a loopy presence in this World Cup, with his reliance on astrology in picking his players and his comical sideline pantomines every time a call went against his team, but yesterday his timidity cost the French dearly. What was there to lose by bringing on Trezeguet to partner Henry up top and telling the relentless Ribery and the tricky Malouda to push the pedal on the flanks and try to score a killing goal? Italy was there for the taking, but Domenech must have been waiting for the moon to enter the Seventh House.
Instead, he witnessed the spontaneous combustion of Saint Zizou. After his outrageous penalty chip caromed fortuitously off the crossbar to give France a 1-0 lead six minutes in, Zidane was never the dominant, inspirational force he was in victories over Spain and Brazil, not least because Gattuso was attached to him like a lamprey eel. But it was a shoulder-rattling tackle from the peerless Cannavaro in the 80th minute that seemed to have left him unnerved, with a scowl of pain permanently affixed to his face.
Still, 14 minutes into extra-time, he found himself where he was eight years ago — leaping in the box to send a laser header goalward, just like the two he scored to beat Brazil in the 2002 final. How heartwarming it would have been for Zidane's career to have ended at that point, with the ball nestled in the back of the net and another World Cup trophy scant minutes away. Only this time, his old Juventus teammate Buffon was there to frustrate him, vaulting backward and somehow thrusting out his right hand to tip the ball over the crossbar. Zidane opened his mouth and let out a Munchian scream of anguish and horror, as if realizing, that for all his magical gifts, he was just another mortal 34-year-old victim of time and space.
Six minutes later, he took one more header, launching his powerful noggin into Mazzeratti's chest, and with that insane act, he wrote what may well be the first line of his soccer obituary.
Italy didn't win the World Cup because of Zidane's moment of madness — yes, he would have been among France's penalty takers in the shootout, but who's to say Trezequet won't have clanged one off the crossbar anyway? — but perhaps it fortified them. There they were, a team that lived in dread of penalty kicks, having been eliminated from three World Cups because of them, knowing that the great Zidane could no longer hurt them.
Who would have divined that Italy would have been perfect from the spot (you can come home now, Roberto Baggio), but then this World Cup has been nothing if not unpredictable. Anyone remember Brazil with its magical quartet of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka and Adriano, who were a lock to win their sixth trophy? Or Argentina with Mesi and Crespo and Tevez and the 24-pass extravaganza that surely made them unbeatable? Or England, with its glittering midfield tandem of Lampard and Gerrard, not to mention pit-bull savior Wayne Rooney? Or the U.S., with its pre-tournament swagger and quixotic dreams of finally showing the soccer world why it should take us seriously?
All gone, long before yesterday's wild denouement. It was Italy, at the end, that was still standing, and it is Italy who deserves our praise for saying a defiant ciao to all its ghosts. At the same, though, we bid a sad adieu to one of the great players of the last 20 years. With any luck, Zidane may next be seen signing Red Bulls jerseys at the Secaucus mall.
Story originally published July 10, 2006. David Hirshey is the co-author of The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sports Event.