Grant Wahl previews the Euro 2016 Final
3:00 | Planet Futbol
Grant Wahl previews the Euro 2016 Final
Friday July 8th, 2016

Berlin’s Olympiastadion was hot and humid on July 9, 2006. There had been storms all week. Zinedine Zidane had converted a penalty early in the World Cup final. Marco Materazzi had headed an equalizer. Italy had hit the bar. France had been denied another penalty. The game went into extra time and seemed to be heading for penalties.

Then, with 10 minutes to go, a France attack was thwarted. As the ball was cleared, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a blue-shirted figure collapse. Something clearly had happened. The game stopped. Argentinian referee Horacio Elizondo approached his linesman. After a brief discussion, he approached Zidane and pulled out a red card. There was a collective gasp from the press box. As the rest of us consulted our monitors, one excitable journalist rushed down to the barrier at the front and leaned over to abuse Zidane as he passed. He has never been able satisfactorily to explain why he did what he did. Nor has Zidane.

In fact, the clearest head seems to have belonged to Elizondo, who recalled the incident in an interview in Issue Eleven of The Blizzard.

“I wait to see whether he gets up—he doesn't get up... doesn't get up... doesn't get up—and I stop the match. From where I was to where Materazzi was, was a walk of about 25, 30 meters.” He asked both his linesmen over their headsets whether they had seen anything. Neither had.

“I had a lot of doubts,” Elizondo said. “Clearly something had happened, but if no one saw what it was... and then Luis Medina Cantalejo's voice [the fourth official] appears in my headset. ‘Horacio, Horacio, I saw it,’ he says to me. ‘A really violent headbutt by Zidane on Materazzi, right in the chest.’

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“So obviously, when I get to the spot, I already know Zidane is on his way. I got to the spot, to where Materazzi was, and the Spaniard [Cantalejo] had already told me what I needed to know to make the decision that Zidane was going to leave the pitch. What I then asked [Cantalejo] was, ‘Why did he headbutt him?’—whether he'd seen whether Materazzi had done anything beforehand—and he replied, ‘No, honestly I don't know. I just saw the headbutt.’

"And when I got there, I realized that the players didn't know what was going on either, apart from [Gianluigi] Buffon who was protesting to the assistant, pressuring him, and [Gennaro] Gattuso, but the others saw almost nothing, just like me. And the noise in the stadium...the crowd just went silent, as if to say, ‘What's going on? Why is that player lying on the floor?’ And me in the middle of it, thinking, ‘Right then ... how do I make this decision clear? Zidane's going, he's standing there calmly.’

“It didn't seem very correct, to me, to just BANG! take a red card out like that, as if from nowhere, with the crowd and players all having seen that I'd been in the other half and hadn't seen anything. So, since the headsets were only new, you can see if you watch it on video that I go over to [the linesman] Dario Garcia ... I went over to Dario, but I knew Dario didn't know anything! So, why? Well, because that is understandable. Everyone understands if you go over to the assistant that it's because the assistant is going to tell you something to help you make a decision. So I get to Dario, and I just say to him, ‘Focused!’—I say it to him and I say it to myself, to remind us both, ‘there are still 10 minutes to go, stay focused.’—I turn around and go to Zidane and take out the red card. It was a little bit of a disguise, but it contained some truth as to how the decision was taken.”

Robert Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

But still the question remained of just why Zidane had done what he did. He has always maintained Materazzi had insulted his mother and his sister. Materazzi’s explanation has always been that when Zidane responded to some shirt-pulling by asking if he wanted his shirt, he replied, “I’d prefer your sister.” Neither explanation makes much sense. Zidane was 34. He had surely heard far worse on the pitch without reacting–although his fuse was always short: he picked up 14 red cards in his career, 12 of them for reacting after being provoked.

Numerous thinkers have come up with theories as to why Zidane acted as he did. Former England cricketer Ed Smith, for instance, in What Sport Tells Us About Life, suggests that Zidane, used to acting at a level at which he could shape narratives, was appalled when Buffon saved a potentially match-winning header from him after 104 minutes, this thwarting the perfect finale to his career. “Zidane wasn't thinking logically when he butted Materazzi,” Smith said. “He wasn't thinking at all. He was acting at a level, as he often did, which was beyond the bounds of normality.”

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That theory is similar to the one put forward by the Belgian intellectual Jean-Philippe Toussaint in his essay “Zidane’s Melancholy.” Once Buffon had saved his late header, Toussaint argues, Zidane realized that he no longer had “the means, or the strength, the energy, the will, to pull off … a final act of pure form.” In fact, “form resists him”: unable to accept his “irreparable impotence,” Zidane resolves to “ruin” his “proper exit.”

A Freudian, perhaps would argue that Zidane, facing the dissolution of his own ego in the “death” of retirement and seeking to avoid facing the essential randomness of his own coming-into-being, chose to end his career himself what was effectively an act of suicide. In that sense, the headbutt was less a loss of control than a seizure of control.

The truth, of course, is that we will never know. For all the theorizing, it remains an act so seismic that all attempts at an explanation seem fundamentally inadequate.

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