Nothing falls downmore easily than an Italian soccer player--with the possible exception of anItalian soccer player's pants. What is it with the World Cup champions'eagerness to drop trou? Last summer five greased-up members of the Azzurri sethearts aflutter (and left little to the imagination) by appearing in Dolce& Gabbana underwear ads on signboards across Germany. Now, seven monthslater, their most notorious teammate is spontaneously stripping into his blackD&Gs before a stunned audience in a stylish Milan studio. It's hard not tostare.
Then again, he wants you to. "See, it's the World Cup trophy!" saysMarco Materazzi, pointing to the eight-inch-long tattoo on his left thigh, oneof the two dozen (and counting) that decorate much of his chiseled 6'4"frame. "I got it three days after the final."
"I've got onetoo!" adds his wife of 13 years, Daniela, rolling up her right sleeve toreveal a mini-Cup, to say nothing of her own array of body art.
Their two-year-olddaughter, Anna, giggles nearby. Last July her daddy played a central role inthe iconic sports moment of the young century: the thunderous head butt hereceived in the chest after orally provoking French superstar Zinédine Zidaneduring the waning minutes of the World Cup final. A global cottage industry hasgrown around the Head Butt Seen Round the World--chart-topping pop songs,best-selling books, a blizzard of digitally altered YouTube clips--and ifhistory repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, the man they callthe Matrix would rather embrace the farce.
Cross DennisRodman with Roberto Benigni, and you'd get something resembling 33-year-oldMarco Materazzi. Like Rodman, he's a tattoo-covered hardman whose flamboyant(some say dirty) antics have often overshadowed his surpassing skills. This isthe same player who scored a goal and converted a penalty kick in the World Cupfinal ... but also committed a penalty and instigated the Head Butt. And whoset a Serie A record for goals by a defender (12, with Perugia in 2000--01) ...but later drew one of the longest misconduct suspensions in Italian history.And who recently scored on a bicycle-kick goal ... only to garner moreattention for absorbing another head butt, from Sampdoria's GennaroDelvecchio.
Yet like Benigni,the Oscar-winning Italian comic actor (Life Is Beautiful), Materazzi has alsotried to mine humor from misfortune. Last fall he put out a book for charity,What I Really Said to Zidane, listing 249 possible provocations. (Sample:"French philosophy hasn't been the same since Foucault died.")Materazzi also filmed an ad for Nike spoofing the Head Butt in which hesubjected his barrel chest to an onrushing linebacker, a police battering ramand a speeding monster truck. Lately, the Materazzi laugh track has given riseto a new chant across Italian stadiums: Tutti pazzi per Materazzi! (All madabout Materazzi!)
Sometimes, though,he can't hide his frustration--not to mention his fear--over the lack ofclosure to the Zidane episode. Among Materazzi's manifold tattoos is an Italiansaying that begins on the back of his left arm and ends on his right: IF YOUCAN SOLVE A PROBLEM, WHY WORRY? AND IF YOUR PROBLEM CAN'T BE RESOLVED, WHAT'STHE USE OF WORRYING ANYWAY? But what if the resolution to his most publicproblem remains elusive? What if Zidane never accepts his invitation to meet inperson, exchange apologies and finally lay their feud to rest?
Eight months afterthat fateful night in Berlin, the Matrix can't shake his sense that historywill remember the Head Butt more than any other event of last year's World Cup."The United Nations wanted to take separate pictures of us and then bringthem together, but I'd be even happier to do it for real," Materazzi saysthrough a translator. "I've apologized to those I have offended. I think[Zidane] should also apologize for what was done, and for what I have gonethrough as well. If we were to do it through the U.N., everyone would see it.I'm more than willing to do this as a real act of communication for the worldand for peace."
Zidane's response?"It's in the past," he told French television's Canal Plus last fall."Things happened the way they happened. We have to live with it."
Perhaps.Materazzi, however, has one big advantage. While Zizou has retired, the Matrixis still out on the field--and thriving.
The scene at the Stadio Domenica in Verona on a gray mid-February afternoon isa microcosm of Italian soccer. Nine days after a carabiniere died from anexplosive device during a riot outside a stadium in Sicily, the government hasreluctantly allowed Serie A to resume play while enacting strict securitymeasures that will force many matches to be played behind closed doors untilstadiums are brought up to code. "Very, very sad," Materazzi says,shaking his head. "Without the fans, no sport is possible."
Has any nationever had a more bizarre 12-month stretch of soccer? On the one hand the Azzurriwon their fourth World Cup last July, and Materazzi's Inter Milan hasestablished itself as one of the world's top clubs, reeling off a record 18straight wins in Serie A. On the other hand the Italian league has been laidlow not only by the tragedy in Sicily but also by a corruption scandal lastyear that resulted in, among other penalties, the relegation of Juventus to thesecond division. When Spain's Valencia knocked out Inter in the UEFA ChampionsLeague round of 16 on March 6, it seemed like business as usual when theNerazzurri engaged the victors in an ugly hissy-fit brawl after the finalwhistle.
The only surprisewas that Materazzi wasn't one of the central figures. Just two years agoItalian columnists were labeling Materazzi an "animal" and a"delinquent" for his thuggish on-field acts: a wild studs-up challengeon then AC Milan star Andriy Shevchenko in 2003; a punch to the face of Siena'sBruno Cirillo in 2004 that drew Materazzi a two-month suspension. These days,though, those misdeeds are largely forgotten. Call it the Matrix revolution."In the past he was seen as a bad guy," says Daniela, with whom he hastwo sons (Gianmarco, 10, and Davide, 6) and Anna. "People asked me, 'Doeshe hit you at home?' But after the World Cup, Marco became an idol. Now theysay, 'You're lucky, you have the ideal man.' But I was lucky to have Marcobefore, and nobody appreciated that."
Including, attimes, Marco's father, Giuseppe, the coach of Rome powerhouse Lazio. It wasGiuseppe who advised the teenaged Marco to give up soccer and try basketball,the sport of Michael Jordan, who sparked Marco's fascination with the number23--Materazzi's jersey number as well as the date on which he was married. Andit was Giuseppe who cross-examined the young couple when Marco, afterabandoning hoops, was mired in the third division at age 21: How do you thinkyou'll live on the money he'll make playing soccer? Says Daniela, "Nobodybelieved in him as a soccer player except for me."
Like Rodman,Materazzi was a late bloomer, reaching Serie A at age 24 and making his firstnational-team appearance at 27. He attributes his fortitude to having to copewith his mother's death from breast cancer when she was 39. Materazzi cherisheshis memories of Anna, who would drive her three sons as far as 300 miles fromtheir home in Bari every weekend so they could see their father play during hispro career. "She died 11 days after my 15th birthday," says Materazzi."It's never easy to lose your mother at 15. You have to become a manquickly."
Materazzi's mostarresting tats are on his back, where a giant pair of angel's wings surroundshis name and those of his wife and daughter. "I made a promise," hesays. "If I was to have a baby girl, I would call her the name of mymother, and I would have tattooed wings of protection, as if the shadow of mymother were there to protect us."
Based on his ownexperience, Materazzi maintains, there's no way he could have insulted Zidane'smother--as Zidane insists he did. "Everyone's got a mother, and you neverknow what her destiny has been," Materazzi says. "You could beattacking the heart of a person, and that's too much." Ultimately, anylingering resentment he harbors from last July isn't toward Zidane. "Whathurt me the most was the media, especially the British," he says. "Theyoffended my image by saying things that [Zidane] then said were not true. Ididn't deserve that."
For all thebenefits of winning the World Cup--becoming an Italian cult hero, meetingJordan, taking the microphone at a Rolling Stones concert ("I'm as crazy asKeith Richards!")--there were significant drawbacks for Materazzi. Like,say, joining the growing list of public figures who've been targeted by Islamicextremists.
Several anonymousletters, written in French, began arriving last summer at the training groundof Inter Milan. "They were saying they wanted to see me so they could killme," says Materazzi, almost whispering, as if he doesn't want the words toreach Anna, who's kicking a soccer ball nearby. "I reported the threats tothe police because they were related to religious issues"--his erroneouslyreported anti-Muslim insults to Zidane. "One of my [French] teammates,Olivier Dacourt, got worried."
And you didn't?"I laughed it off. I don't believe there are people who can be that evil inlife, really."
In the storm ofpost--World Cup media coverage, even reputable publications were quick toallege what Materazzi said. The Times of London hired an "expert lipreader" who concluded that he had called Zidane "the son of a terroristwhore." Meanwhile, The New York Times quoted Zidane's relatives speculatingthat Materazzi had called Zidane a "terrorist" or a "son ofHarkis," an insult to a Frenchman of Algerian descent.
The reality,Materazzi now maintains, had nothing to do with Franco-Algerian relations."I was pulling his jersey because I was afraid he'd score a goal onme," Materazzi says. "But when he looked at me, I found hate in hiseyes. He looked me down from my head to my feet and said, 'O.K., the jersey isyours, and I'll give it to you at the end of the match.' All I said was, 'I'dprefer your sister.'"
Although Zidaneconfirmed to FIFA investigators that the insult wasn't connected to race orreligion, the media damage had been done. "I was scared," says Daniela."The [British tabloid] press quoted Zidane's mother saying she wanted[Marco's] balls on a platter. We have a lot of Muslim friends, and they told usto be careful because this can be an instigation." She held her breath whenInter visited Bahrain for a game in January. "Every time I touched theball, the whole stadium was whistling and booing me," Materazzi recalls."They were obviously influenced by what I had not said."
With unbeatenInter rolling toward the Serie A Scudetto, Materazzi wants to move forward. Andif Zidane were to walk into the room? "I would hold out my hand,"Materazzi says. "In life you should never have enemies. He was my enemy inone sports struggle, but that's it. Let's meet and take pictures. He can evenbring me his jersey."
He shrugs again.Smiles. If Zizou and the Matrix could finally make up, wouldn't life bebeautiful?
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Materazzi has turned the ill-tempered shot from Zidane (inset) into a laughingmatter.
Materazzi's rugged and acrobatic D helped Inter roll off a record 17 straightwins.
After the epic win in Berlin, Marco and Daniela flew home with theirbrood.