Saturday marks the tenth anniversary of Zinedine Zidane planting his forehead on Marco Materazzi’s chest, arguably the most important headbutt in history. Watch the replay back again, revel in it: That headbutt is composed, chilling. Headbutts are normally a crime of passion, a thing thrown in anger, a last resort when bystanders are holding your arms behind your back and saying he’s not worth it, mate, he’s not worth it. But Zidane wanted to headbutt Marco Materazzi. He takes two steps and turns to get the right angle. Plants both his legs in the turf and leans. Head down and back straight like a bull. And then, boom, and Marco Materazzi’s chest has a Zidane-shaped hole in it, and the ref is straight over with the red card, and Italy 5, France 3.
Do you remember the electricity of seeing that headbutt for the first time? How absurd it was seeing the best player of his generation end his career with a header and not a kick? Wind it all back to that day: It’s the final of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and Zidane has nearly dragged his France team all the way there. France and Italy are at an impasse, having each scored one goal. Extra time. Zidane, the French captain, thunders around the pitch with an empty look in his eyes. He’s one lucky or genius shot away from repeating the Wold Cup win in 1998, and being named God of the French people again. A fingertip away from glory. An inch away from immortality.
But he’s not there yet—he’s still all too human. So when Marco Materazzi approaches him and pulls his shirt, Zidane jokes, “You’ll have to wait until the end of the match.” The Italian defender replies with an insult—something cheap and racist and which we will never quite know the exact extent of, but you can find some pretty tasty possible transcripts online—and Zidane loses it. He couldn’t wait for the end of the match. He couldn’t wait to have a go at Materazzi until after he’d triumphantly hold the World Cup. He had to do it then, there, in extra time of one of the biggest matches of his life. 110 minute. Zidane on Materazzi. Instant red.
That outpouring of hot-headedness still haunts the French national team every game it plays. Ten years later, it’s still a complete mystery why a team captain would stoop to violence at such a crucial point in the World Cup.
But honestly, could Zidane have been contained? During the entire tournament of 2006, he puts on a sublime show, dominating every game. The whole world gawks at him—even his teammates are often reduced to spectators. He’s 34 and was brought out of early retirement for LesBleus. Everyone knows that these are the last games he will play. He’s above the rules; his moves are hard to follow. At the start of that same World Cup final, he did a panenka when taking a penalty against goalie Gianluigi Buffon—an objectively crazy move for a match of this importance. Zidane was so far above the competition that it was almost embarrassing.
But then he came back down to it. Post-headbutt and Materazzi is writhing on the ground, Italianly, the French coach Raymond Domenech shouting at his players to keep going, keep going, protect Zidane, cover Zizou. Buffon, PTSD already setting in from the panenka, goes to tell the referee about the whole headbutt thing. For the first time in World Cup history, the referee makes his decision with help of a video replay. All this, in the final. Zinedine Zidane gets a red card. He leaves his team all alone for the penalties, which they lose. Italy becomes world champion.
Philosopher Olivier Pourriol remarks in his book L’Eloge du mauvais geste (“In Praise of the Wrong Thing”) that the headbutt “wasn’t even made in the heat of the moment. It’s a calculated action. If there had been anger, Zidane would later have apologized and they could have let him have an honorable exit. We could have forgiven him, saying that the gesture had been uncontrollable. But it’s something he’s never regretted.” That’s true: Four years later, in an interview with TV presenter Michel Denisot, Zidane refused to show an inch of remorse. “There was a provocation, and a very serious one. What I did is unforgivable. I’m just saying that the real culprit must be punished, and that’s the person who provoked me,” said Zidane.
Zidane never really fit the mold of the 21st-century soccer idol—he wasn’t the smiling, affable guy brands can count on. Patrick Juillard, a journalist for Foot 365 and a sports consultant on RFI, told me that there are few players in his position who have been warned so often during their careers. “Zidane was a hot-blooded player, regularly crossing the line on the pitch. He received twelve red cards in his career—that’s a huge number for a midfielder,” he told me. “During that 2006 World Cup, we all witnessed his unique talent, but also his difficulty in controlling his nerves. In the final, Zidane showed off both sides of his character: his genius with the panenka over Buffon and then the complete loss of control with his headbutt.” A Zidane in 2016 would be just as commercially dangerous: gifted, undoubtedly, absurdly talented, but with a thing for studs-out shin scrapers, for from-behind two-footers, for headbutting Marco Materazzi in the actual World Cup final. He was so great he flourished in a space carved for him outside of the soccer whirl, the press conferences, the photoshoots. He was so good he could headbutt an Italian, and we’d still love him.
Modern soccer demands smoothing out the behavior of professional players. Few brands today want to be represented by a fickle, moody man. What sells today are people like the Irish or Icelandic supporters and players, unanimously praised for their good humor. What sells now is tanned and gleaming super robots with movie-star smiles, doing backheels while drinking Diet Pepsi. What we want now is airbrushed and anodyne. Soccer idols with the chaos strained out.
But in ten years’ time, who will remember the friendly Irish supporters and their unfailing dedication to keeping the French streets clean? Who will talk about Cristiano Ronaldo—certainly a great player, but devoid of any character or flavor? Zidane and his headbutt are made of different stuff: lore, mythology, a misplaced frustration, and early-onset MPB. “Zidane is an ambivalent genius,” Julliard told me. “He wasn’t obedient. He just ended the sporting stakes [of the World Cup], he ended the end of his career—and decided the outcome of the game.” Ten years on, Zinedine Zidane is still the ultimate Frenchman. Ten years on, it’s still the ultimate headbutt.