The most dramatic and memorable exit of all time

The greatest player of his generation burned out in a cloud of controversy so spectacular that it totally overshadowed Italy's
World Cup win, writes Ken Early

Zinedine Zidane's attack on Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final was pretty weird, but not as weird as some of the subsequent press coverage. "All the trophies Zinedine Zidane hoisted, all the glory he brought France, all those sparks of magic that flew off his feet game after game, year after year – all of a sudden, it's almost like they never happened," screamed the usually-sober Associated Press. "This morning, Zinedine, what do we tell our children, and all those for whom you were the living role model for all times?" wailed L'Equipe. "The blue angel was transformed into a demon" sobbed Le Figaro.

Those who know football know that Zidane was never an angel. How can a career which has already seen 13 red cards suddenly be tarnished by the 14th? Sunday wasn't the first time Zidane had been sent off in the World Cup – in 1998 he saw red for stamping on a lippy Saudi opponent. It wasn't even his worst red-card offence – that came in 2000 when Juventus played Hamburg in the Champions League. The Germans targeted Zidane for some rough treatment and, just before the half-hour mark, Jochen Kientz slid through him from behind. As Zidane got up he suddenly crouched over Kientz, grabbed him by the collar and nutted him in the face. Images of Kientz writhing on the ground with blood all over his face were beamed around the world. Zidane was sent off and later banned for five games.

Evidently, the leader-writers at Le Figaro weren't watching the blue angel in action that night, but those who have followed his career have always known this was in Zidane. He's never been a classically dirty player – with his incredible talent, he never needed to stamp on opponents' feet or pinch their nipples like Materazzi. But he is not prepared to be bullied. He is quiet, but not cold, instinctive rather than crafty; when provocation reaches a certain pitch, he lashes out. Almost all his red cards have been for retaliatory violence. Zidane doesn't talk much, so nobody really knows where these sudden surges of righteous violence come from. Some observers, including team-mate Thierry Henry and Euro-politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit, suggest it is the result of his tough upbringing in the suburbs of Marseille, where every day is a Hobbesian struggle for survival. The problem with this theory is that most footballers at the World Cup grew up in rough neighbourhoods and very few of them have been sent off 14 times. The gentle Henry, product of an estate outside Paris, is the living refutation of his own theory.

But what could have provoked such a violent reaction? At the time of writing there were multiple mutually-incompatible theories. Depending on which lipreader you believe, Materazzi said either, "Fuck your mother," or "Keep the shirt for your whore sister," or "You dirty terrorist son of an Algerian whore," or "I wish an ugly death on you and all your family, go fuck yourself." Widespread internet rumours accuse Materazzi of gloating over the death from cancer of Jean Varraud, a beloved former coach and mentor of Zidane. For his part, Materazzi has denied the allegation that he called Zidane a "dirty terrorist", but he plainly has no intention of revealing what he actually said. He refused to speak to journalists after the final when, under normal circumstances, as the scorer of the equalising goal and a penalty in the shootout, he would have been desperate to brag about his exploits to everyone who would listen. Only Zidane can end the suspense.

Will Zidane's reputation be damaged in the long-term? Not in the eyes of football supporters, who are very forgiving where their heroes are concerned. Zizou's fans will one day look back on that World Cup final and laugh; many of them are laughing already. It's good for heroes to have faults, it makes them more compelling. Brazilians prefer the hopeless alcoholic Garrincha to the offputtingly-perfect Pele. In Ireland, Paul McGrath is more popular than Liam Brady. The ultimate example of the breed is Diego Maradona, whose World Cup record could easily be portrayed as a litany of shame by a moralising L'Equipe leader writer. In 1982 he was sent off for kicking Brazil's Batista in the testicles. In 1986 he punched in a goal against England and openly laughed at those who criticised his lack of sportsmanship. In 1990 he ended the tournament weeping pathetically after two of his team-mates had been sent off in the final. In 1994 he was kicked out of the World Cup after testing positive for ephedrine. Maradona was a drug addict who hung out with the Camorra, cheated prodigiously on his (now ex-) wife, fathered a son he refused to acknowledge, dodged millions of euros worth of taxes and gorged himself to comic obesity; next to him Zidane is a saint. Yet Maradona still commands enormous respect and affection all over the world. He mesmerised cameramen at the World Cup, while squeaky-clean legends like Michel Platini and Johan Cruyff scarcely made an appearance.

The only people who will recoil from Zidane are those who never understood him in the first place. Maybe they will include those who wanted to turn him into a political symbol, the darling of the French integrationist model, a role in which he never really felt comfortable. If French liberals are looking for a sporting poster-boy, they have a perfect candidate in Lilian Thuram, who is much more articulate than Zidane and far less likely to embarrass them by suddenly headbutting someone.

In the meantime, the greatest player of his generation can at least console himself with the knowledge that his exit from the game was maybe the most dramatic and memorable of all time. What would Roy Keane have given for his career to end with a blazing Berlin Gotterdammerung rather than a visit to some doctor's dreary consulting room? It's better to burn out than fade away and if you can burn out in a nuclear mushroom cloud of controversy and recrimination so spectacular that it totally overshadows a country's World Cup win, so much the better.p


Blew up when manager Mick McCarthy accused him of feigning injury to escape playing friendly games, launching furious verbal suicide attack which, while deeply satisfying in the short term, destroyed the nation's World Cup dream in the medium term. Fact-starved media invented insults he had allegedly hurled at his enemy; many still believe he called Mick an "English cunt" despite both men (and Niall Quinn) denying this.


Reacted to racist abuse from Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons by diving into the crowd to attack his tormentor, instantly winning a legendary status that he would never have achieved by his skills alone.


Unprovoked, Wexford's frustrated star footballer stands all over the back of Offaly player Shane Sullivan's head in the Leinster football championship this year


Three Dublin footballers are sent off in the 1983 All-Ireland final, including Ciaran Duff for kicking, in the head, a prone opponent lying on the ground