It will beforever known as the Headbutt. At 10:16 p.m. on July 9, at the Olympic Stadiumin Berlin, France's Zinédine Zidane rammed his noggin into the chest of Italy'sMarco Materazzi, felling the blue-shirted defender like a redwood. And in oneShakespearean moment of madness on the most visible stage in sports--the WorldCup final--the greatest player of his generation ended his career by whipsawingfrom honor to disgrace, from savior to antihero, from YouTube glorification toYouTube ridicule. (Hundreds of Internet replays, many of them digitallyaltered, turned the Headbutt into a 21st-century cultural phenomenon.) ¬∂ Yet bythe end of the year Zidane--who is now enjoying a sports icon's comfortableretirement--was more popular than ever. Perhaps that's because the French havealways forgiven their public figures' faults. Perhaps it's because sports fansthe world over believe that the thuggish Materazzi deserved such rough justice.And perhaps it's because anyone who knows soccer realizes that France neverwould have been in a position to win the World Cup had Zidane not played somasterfully in the knockout rounds against Spain, Brazil and Portugal.
Ultimately, ofcourse, the incident was just a yo-mama crack gone bad, a classic example ofthe old definition of history: first tragedy, then farce. Materazzi ended upmaking an ad for his shoe sponsor spoofing the incident, and FIFA presidentSepp Blatter considered inviting the two players to a make-nice summit meetingon Robben Island, off South Africa, the onetime site of Nelson Mandela'simprisonment. The fact that the reunion never happened failed to negate thefinal lessons: The Headbutt gave sports fans the world over (including plentyof U.S. radio shock jocks) something to talk about, and the sheer number ofarguments reminded us exactly why soccer is the most popular pastime on earth.--Grant Wahl
The Party's NotOver
Oscar De La Hoya,whom we left for retired in 2005 (well, on his knees after Bernard Hopkinscrumpled him with a shot to the liver), made a little comeback this year,demolishing Ricardo Mayorga in his only fight and setting himself up for amegamatch against Floyd Mayweather Jr. next spring. Ordinarily a fighter whoplugs along into his twilight years (Evander, you listening?) doesn't belong ona best-of list, but the 33-year-old De La Hoya's pugilistic persistence isoddly inspirational.
For one thing DeLa Hoya's got so much going on--promotions, land deals, Spanish-languagenewspapers, a heartening amount of philanthropy--that boxing is little morethan a sideline. He could have eased out of the game with a lot of shine on hisGolden Boy image and never looked back. It is, after all, a pretty hardsport.
But De La Hoyahas decided that the best way to honor boxing (a notion few of his peers careabout) is to keep fighting. No doubt there is vanity involved. But by remainingin the ring, even past his prime, De La Hoya has given us reason to payattention a little longer, until somebody else (there will be somebody else,right?) comes along.
This isn't apublic service, of course--he'll get something like $20 million to keep inshape--but it's an effort he doesn't really need to make. The fact that De LaHoya, the last of boxing's crossover stars, still wants to fight is enough tomake us still want to watch. --Richard Hoffer
The Tao of LittleE
He sped down thebackstretch at Talladega Superspeedway, and through the bug-spatteredwindshield of his number 8 Chevy, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could see the checkeredflag--and a future suddenly filled with promise. On the last lap of theUAW-Ford 500 on Oct. 8, Earnhardt led Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers at thetrack where his daddy, as he still refers to him, won 10 races and where LittleE himself had reached Victory Lane five times between 2001 and '04. Junior hadbeen a nonfactor in his previous three starts at 'Dega, but now he was poisedto reaffirm his reputation as the best restrictor-plate racer of hisgeneration.
The red-clad,Earnhardt-mad crowd of 160,000 rose to its feet. Little E was about a mile awayfrom his second win of 2006, which would catapult him to third place in thepoints standings with six races left in the Chase for the Championship. Theseason had already been a success for Earnhardt, who had finished 19th in '05,and now he was primed to make his move on the field.
But then, in themost dramatic five seconds of NASCAR's season, all of Earnhardt's dreams weredashed. Roaring into Turn 3, Vickers clipped the back bumper of Johnson'snumber 48 Chevy. Johnson lost control and smashed into Earnhardt. Both Johnsonand Earnhardt helplessly spun into the infield in a cloud of dust and smokewhile Vickers took the checkered flag, prompting fans to hurl beer bottles andboos in his direction. Earnhardt finished 23rd, robbing him of any chance ofwinning his first Nextel Cup title.
So what didEarnhardt do when he pulled his wrecked car into the garage? Take a swing atVickers? Call him a name from his expansive four-letter vocabulary? "Thatwas just hard racing, man," Earnhardt said. "I've been there, done thatbefore, so I ain't mad at Brian. I'm just happy because our team isback."
No question,Little E lost a lot that day: a chance to win the race, a chance to earn thechampionship and a chance to further embellish the Earnhardt legend atTalladega. But he won even more. His absolution of Vickers was the classiestmove of 2006. And it's acts like this that have made Earnhardt, at 32, one ofthe most respected drivers in the garage--just as his daddy was in his day.--Lars Anderson
One Brief ShiningMoment
One image isarresting and painful. A majestic dark bay thoroughbred glides from thestarting gate at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course on the third Saturday in May,gobbling up chunks of track with his powerful legs and spitting them out behindhim. Then, suddenly, Barbaro runs no longer. While the other horses continue,he stands flexing his right hind leg convulsively, as if confused. The limb isclearly damaged, perhaps beyond repair. A story of survival begins.
Another image ismore comforting. Two weeks earlier, beneath the fabled twin spires of ChurchillDowns, a champion was born at the Kentucky Derby. The unbeaten but lightlyraced Barbaro toyed with the field in the most important horse race in theworld. After chasing hopeless sprinters for nearly a mile, he galloped to thelead on the turn and powerfully pulled away in the stretch to win by 6 1/2lengths, the biggest margin in 60 years.
His triumph wasone of those rare moments in racing that reveal unmistakable greatness. Veterantrainers stood on the Churchill Downs dirt that afternoon and sought words todescribe what they had seen and diplomatic means to concede the first TripleCrown in nearly three decades. "He's got the tough one out of the way,"three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert said of Barbaro, "so lookout."
The colt wouldnever complete another revolution of a racing oval in competition, and eventoday he continues to fight for his life. Yet for a little more than twominutes on one of the grandest stages in all of sport, Barbaro was brilliantand memorable. There is joy in embracing what was and not lamenting what mighthave been. --Tim Layden
On the thirdWednesday in February, Alpine skiers Carole Montillet-Carles of France andLindsey Kildow of the U.S. prepared to race in the Olympic women's downhill.They rode the chairlift up above the tiny Italian village of San Sicario, andwhen their bib numbers were called, they skied down as swiftly as possible.Kildow finished eighth, while Montillet-Carles, who won the Olympic downhill atSalt Lake City in 2002, was 28th.
Where was theglory in this? It was in simply embracing the privilege of competition. Sportshave long dismissed the value of a game well played or a race well run. A noisypublic requires spectacular feats, great fantasy stats and gaudycelebrations.
The glory thatwinter day was in the face of Montillet-Carles, who two days earlier hadcrashed spectacularly in a training run. She had bruised her ribs, and herracing goggles had been smashed against her skull, leaving her face grotesquelybruised and swollen, with jagged cuts on her forehead and along the bridge ofher nose. Her eyes were pressed nearly shut. "I could not have stayed in myroom and watched the race," Montillet-Carles said of the Olympic downhill."I knew that I would be able to clench my teeth and bear it."
The glory wasalso in the aching body of Kildow, who had come to Italy with medal dreams buthad also fallen disastrously in the same training run as Montillet-Carles.Kildow's back and hip were so tender that it hurt just to walk. However, shesaid, "I never considered not racing because of the pain."
Downhill racingis dangerous to the point of foolhardiness. Yet these two wounded skiers willedthemselves to compete--simply because they belonged. Because they wereOlympians. --T.L.
Bode Miller (left) will again win World Cup races at the dizzying pace he setfrom 2002 through '05. But he'll still be ripped for partying away the 2006Olympics while in the prime of his career.
Tony Stewart will win his third NASCAR championship.And while he takes the Nextel Cup title, former Formula One driver Juan PabloMontoya of Colombia will be the Rookie of the Year.
The L.A. Galaxy will sign David Beckham. The move willbring buzz to MLS, extend the career of a fading superstar (left) and make thebeautiful game an A-list attraction for Hollywood stars.
Street Sense, the colt that won the Breeders' CupJuvenile by 10 lengths (above, right), will not win the Kentucky Derby. This isthe safest bet in sports: The 2-year-old winner has never gone on to prevail atChurchill Downs.
Vitali Klitschko will be back in the ring. The olderbrother (below, left) of heavyweight champion Wladimir has recently insistedthat he's retired for good, but nothing you ever hear in boxing is true.
Performance in near-complete anonymity
The U.S. women's soccer team didn't lose a game in 2006, setting the stage fora strong run through the '07 Women's World Cup in China next September.
What might have been a trilogy for the ages was scrapped when lightweight JoséLuis Castillo failed to make 135 pounds and Diego Corrales decided not to fighta heavier man. A year earlier, before their second fight, Castillo also didn'tmake weight. Corrales nevertheless fought him--and lost.
After being spun out by Matt Kenseth late in the Food City 500 at Bristol MotorSpeedway on March 26, Jeff Gordon displayed his anger by shoving Kenseth hardin the chest. No punches were thrown, but this was the most feeling that Gordonhad ever shown in his 14 years on the Cup circuit.
U.S. Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek (right) won gold and silver medals in Turinand donated his $40,000 in USOC winnings to Right to Play, a relieforganization that creates youth sports programs in disadvantaged countries.
New speed merchant
Sanya Richards, 21, ran the 400 meters in 48.70 seconds to break ValerieBrisco's U.S. mark, set at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Richards,who ran for two years at Texas, was unbeaten in her specialty and ran the fivefastest times in the world in 2006.
On the morning after Jimmie Johnson (left) captured the 2006 Nextel Cup, hiscrew chief, Chad Knaus, woke him up in his Miami hotel room by dousing him withseveral bottles of champagne. The duo had plenty to celebrate: Johnson hadbecome the first driver in history to win the Daytona 500, the All-StarChallenge and the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard--NASCAR's three majors--as wellas the points title in the same year.
Horse racing statistic 9,531.
That's how many career victories jockey Russell Baze, 48, reached on Dec. 1,breaking Laffit Pincay Jr.'s record.
Innovation in the sport of kings
Such respected tracks as Hollywood Park and Keeneland installed syntheticracing surfaces. There's no hard evidence yet, but the racing industry hopesthat such surfaces will be kinder to horses' fragile legs and prevent injuriessuch as the one at the 2006 Preakness that ended Barbaro's career.
Performance in a non-headbutting role
Italy defender Fabio Cannavaro (right) performed splendidly in the backfield tolead the Azzurri to their fourth World Cup title and earn the Silver Ball asthe second-best player in the tournament.
Reasons to go on living
It's a tie between Mike Tyson's exhibition tour, in which he has said he mightfight a woman, and the Superfighter tournament, which was supposed to matcheight heavyweights in one day of boxing in Australia on Dec. 2 but was, alas,postponed.
There's no question that Zidane headbutted Materazzi, but the Italian may haveoverplayed his agony.
A wild-eyed De La Hoya lands a left to Mayorga's body on the way to an emphaticvictory.
Barbaro was hoisted out of a pool in Pennsylvania as he rehabbed his surgicallyrepaired hind leg.
Vickers (25) tapped Johnson (48), who bashed Earnhardt and wrecked Little E'schance at a key victory.
Only two days after bashing her face in a brutal crash, Montillet-Carles wasback on the treacherous slopes.