My Favourite Match: Zinedine Zidane and the headbutt that decided the outcome of the 2006 World Cup Final

For me, the 2006 World Cup final and the Zinedine Zidane drama was a crushing introduction to how invested sport can make someone feel, and from that point on, there was no looking back.

Aadi Nair April 26, 2020 22:40:17 IST
My Favourite Match: Zinedine Zidane and the headbutt that decided the outcome of the 2006 World Cup Final

Editor's Note: The global coronavirus outbreak has brought all sporting action to an indefinite halt. While empty stadiums and non-existent sports news make for an unusually grim sight, we take it as an opportunity to look back, and - to paraphrase poet William Henry Davies - stand and stare. In this latest series 'My Favourite Match', our writers recall the sporting encounters that affected their younger selves the most, and in many cases, helped them fall in love with the sport altogether. Happy Reading!

In 2006, I was told by a senior in school that the ongoing FIFA World Cup would go down as the most entertaining tournament in the history of sport, a spectacle which simply could not be missed. Despite being just shy of 11 years at the time, I had no real knowledge of sports, so I took his word for it. When I got home that day, I announced to my mother that we would also be spectators to this sporting extravaganza, and asked her to change the channel immediately. In response, I was told that it was just four in the afternoon, and that the matches didn't begin until much later.

My Favourite Match Zinedine Zidane and the headbutt that decided the outcome of the 2006 World Cup Final

French midfielder Zinedine Zidane (L) head butts Italian defender Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup. AFP

Undeterred, I decided to return later, at the appropriate time, and somehow, roped my father into watching the match with me. Argentina were playing Mexico, and they went on to beat the Latin American team courtesy of a Maxi Rodriguez goal in extra-time. During half-time, my father leaned over and asked me who I was supporting. That particular match wasn't very exciting, and neither of the teams on display seemed all that interesting, so I decided to champion the cause of France, for no other reason than the fact that I was learning French as a third language in school.

For the next few weeks, I religiously tuned in to watch every day, and I honestly don't think I could have picked a better team to support. France dispatched team-after-team with ease, going all the way to the final. My memory of these earlier matches is admittedly shaky, but I remember being quite absorbed by the grandeur of the whole affair. I was loving my first brush with football, I'd unlocked the winning formula on my very first attempt. This whole 'sports' thing was easy.

On 9 July, the day of the final, I had the television on an hour before the match began. A part of that was anticipation, but mostly it was because I was watching on an ancient television in my grandfather's house, the kind that responded more to vigorous whacks than it did to remotes. I swear I fiddled with almost every configuration of settings on that piece of junk, trying my best to make the visuals as clear as possible. Eventually, I gave up and made peace with the fact that it would be grainy, and that I'd just have to live with it.

In spite of the terrible video quality, I do remember the goals quite well. The first was created by French winger Florent Malouda, who raced on to a headed pass from Thierry Henry, only to be brought down in the penalty area by Marco Materazzi. The penalty was converted by Zinedine Zidane, whose audacious panenka wrong-footed Gianluigi Buffon to give France the lead in just the seventh minute. So far, so good.

The goal felt hugely significant, and I celebrated it as such. But that joy was soon cut short. Italy replied within minutes, and it was Materazzi who atoned for his earlier error, rising highest to power home an Andrea Pirlo corner. It was even, and that's how it would remain, until the very end. There were several good chances for Italy in the following 71 minutes, with striker Luca Toni hitting the crossbar and then having a goal disallowed, but France held on and took the match into extra time.

It was during extra time that the incident which has now come to define the match occurred, but Zidane had already fluffed his lines a few minutes before the headbutt, directing a close-range header straight at Buffon, who tipped it over the crossbar. Had 'Zizou', as he had come to be known by his legions of fans, scored from that opportunity, it is more than likely that none of the ensuing madness would have unfolded as it did.

Unfortunately for France, Zidane missed that header, but four minutes later, he connected a little too well with Materazzi's chest, sending the Italian sprawling onto the Olympiastadion's turf. What was said between the two players at the time was not important, not to me at least. Zidane had just KO'd a full-grown man Sylvester Stallone-style. True, Materazzi was hardly a saint, and he went down like a sack of bricks, but it was stonewall. There were no two ways about it. Zizou was shown a red card, and he walked off the field, straight down the tunnel.

My Favourite Match Zinedine Zidane and the headbutt that decided the outcome of the 2006 World Cup Final

Zidane walks off after being shown the red card in the 2006 World Cup final. AFP

I recall being overcome by sadness, turning to my mother, tugging at her elbow and asking if France could still pull through, only for her to reply with stunned silence. From that point on, the game was as good as lost, and pretty much everyone knew it. The wind had been knocked out of France, and they went on to lose in a penalty shootout. It was quite late in India, seeing as the contest was being held in Germany, and I was summarily sent to bed, the grandeur and occasion of the night rather deflated by the eventual outcome.

I went to bed in tears, distraught that the team who I had begun to support just weeks ago, had been denied glory, and that my first experience in football had been a losing one. It meant so much to me, at the time, and looking back on it as a sceptical adult, I don't know why. I had no real ties to the team, or to the players, but I remember caring deeply about the outcome, more so than I had about most things up until that point. For me, the 2006 World Cup final and the Zinedine Zidane drama was a crushing introduction to how invested sport can make someone feel, and from that point on, there was no looking back.

To read other pieces from our 'My Favourite Match' series, click here

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