BERLIN He had so long been their talisman, but not Sunday.
In the final game of his soccer career, Zinédine Zidane produced three iconic moments for France, but only one that he'll care to remember in his dotage.
In the opening minutes of the World Cup final against favoured Italy at the Olympic Stadium, Zidane was the only choice to take a penalty drawn by Florent Malouda on what seemed a dubious call against Italian defender Marco Materazzi (remember that name).
Zidane coolly stepped up and hit a cheeky little chip shop that just barely scraped under the bar. It was the first time goaltender Gianluigi Buffon had been beaten by an opponent in this tournament — the only other goal Italy gave up was knocked in by one of its own defenders in a match against the United States — and as it turned out, it would be the last.
The Italians came back to tie the score 12 minutes later, when Materazzi was marked by Patrick Viera, but outjumped him and headed in a corner kick from Andrea Pirlo.
On the balance of play, the Italians probably deserved the lead at the half — controlling the midfield, bottling up Thierry Henry and putting themselves in Zidane's path at every opportunity — but had to settle for a 1-1 draw after 45 minutes.
Still, that score figured to put the Azzurri in the catbird seat. The core of the French team had shown its age in the semi-final against Portugal, running out of gas in the final 20 minutes, forced to desperately hang on.
Yesterday, instead, France came alive after the break, while the Italians seemed strangely unfocused, sloppy and spiritless in the second 45 minutes, their attack mostly limited to lobbing long balls in the general direction of striker Luca Toni.
Francesco Totti, invisible most of the game, was replaced with Vincenzo Iaquinta up front, but that didn't seem to light a spark. Time and time again, the Italian captain, the great central defender Fabio Cannavaro, stepped up to save their bacon.
But the French lacked the stroke of genius to take the match inside 90 minutes. Only in extra time did they really seem on the verge of crafting their fairy tale ending, as Zidane, left alone in the box, rose to meet Willy Sagnol's cross, and headed the ball on a line that would have taken it just under the bar. But Buffon leaped and made a spectacular save, tipping the ball over the goal, denying France the victory.
Then, in the second period of extra time, Zidane made his sad, stupid exit.
Who knows what Materazzi might have said to him, or what he might have done to get under his skin? It was enough that in the dying minutes of his final game on the world's greatest stage, Zidane lost control of his emotions, stepped up to Materazzi and head-butted him in the chest.
It's sounds dumb and it sounds pointless, and indeed it was. But the referee, Horacio Elizondo of Argentina — the same official who sent Wayne Rooney off in the England-Portugal quarter-final — was left with no choice. After consulting with his assistants, he showed Zidane the red card.
Walking off the pitch, Zidane stripped off his captain's armband and then slowly descended the steps to the dressing room in this vast stadium, originally constructed for the Olympics of 1936.
The other French players soldiered on valiantly after Zidane's exit. Even with their opponent down to 10 men and the World Cup in the balance, the Italians chose not to step up the attack and were whistled mercilessly by every fan in the stadium not wearing azure blue.
No doubt coach Marcello Lippi, who has to be counted as one of Italy's real heroes in this World Cup, had already made the calculation: If the match headed to a shootout, he had Buffon, the best goalkeeper in the world, at his disposal, while French counterpart Raymond Domenech would live or die with erratic Fabien Barthez.
Those odds Lippi had to like.
And, of course, one of France's five kicks in the shootout would have been taken by Zidane, whose penalty against Portugal had put France into the finals. Now, the man nicknamed Zizou was gone, and Henry had been substituted. And Italy's fourth World Cup, and it's first since 1982, was in the cards.
There was some justice in that. In 1994, Italy lost the final to Brazil on penalty kicks, when Roberto Baggio memorably knocked his kick over the bar.
Last night, all five of Italy's shooters, including Materazzi and culminating with Fabio Grosso, who ran the length of the pitch after his joyous strike, beat Barthez easily. As it turned out, Buffon didn't need to make a save at all, because David Trézéguet's penalty shot hit the bar and deflected down, but not in.
“Sometimes penalty kicks are luck and sometimes they are art,” Lippi said. “Tonight, it was art.”
By those few centimetres a World Cup was decided — capping a strange, controversial tournament, with few great matches, with officiating too much of the story and with nearly flawless organization, but in the end, with only one worthy team. And at that, one that didn't particularly distinguish itself on the night.
But Italy will take it, and on balance, they deserve it. Those celebrating there, and among the great diaspora, won't long remember the details, only the elation of the triumph.
In France, it will be the opposite, and just as there was only one face of their World Cup triumph in 1998, there will always be just one face of this defeat.