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Zidane writes a sad ending to a spectacular career

Associated Press

Berlin — 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.

Because the most gifted player of his generation, playing his final match on the world stage, will be remembered now for something else — petulance, selfishness, looniness, take your pick.

All because of one moment of unbridled fury.

In the 110th minute of Sunday's World Cup final, Zidane lost his cool, then lowered his head and butted Italy defender Marco Materazzi full-on in the chest.

Seconds earlier, with the score 1-1 in extra time, Materazzi had grabbed a handful of Zidane's jersey just as a French attack on goal passed harmlessly by. Then the defender let go and both players began walking back up the field exchanging words before Zidane charged him.

"I don't know what Materazzi said to Zidane," France coach Raymond Domenech said.

"But it's a shame. It's sad. He (Materazzi) did a lot of acting and for such a big man, a gust of wind made him fall over. It's regrettable."

"We regret it," Domenech added, apparently speaking for Zidane. "He regrets it."

Whatever the provocation, the effect was never in doubt. Yet few people actually saw the head-butt happen, and those who did could not believe their eyes.

But while referee Horacio Elizondo tried to sort out the chaotic scene on the field, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon ran to the assistant referee along the sideline and began pleading his case. Replays available on television screens around the stadium made it easy. Elizondo walked over for a brief consultation with his assistant, and no sooner did that end than he walked up to Zidane, brandished a red card and banished No. 10 from the field.

Zidane barely protested. Slowly, he turned toward the exit leading to the locker room and began the long walk. A few times, he turned his eyes skyward. Amid a growing din of whistles, catcalls and shouts, he yelled a few words at the heavens.

And so the closest he would come to the World Cup trophy on this night was passing within arm's reach of the pedestal where it sat on display a few steps ahead of the exit.

As Zidane sat in France's locker room at the end of extra time and beyond, Italy went on to convert all five of its penalty kicks in the shootout and took home the trophy that could have been — and for a while seemed like it would have been — the crowning achievement of his career. Instead, it turned out to be the nadir.

Asked whether the French national team would miss the player who led them to a World Cup title on home soil back in 1998, Domenech didn't hesitate.

"Yes," he replied, "but we missed him the last 20 minutes. That weighed heavily in the balance."

Domenech went further than that, suggesting that Materazzi, not Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo, deserved to be named man of the match. And he might have a point. Materazzi has a well-earned reputation as nasty player in Italy's tough Serie A, and his role in the ugly drama was nowhere near as surprising as Zidane's.

He was suspended for two months in 2004 after punching an opponent and conceded earlier in the tournament, "I can't tell you how many times my kids have been told at school that I'm a monster."

"You make mistakes in life," Materazzi added. "But then you have to purify yourself, without seeking revenge. Everyone has their destiny."

If so, he took a good man down with him.

Zidane did not speak with reporters afterward, but it's hard to imagine there was anything he could say that would justify what happened.

Almost no one was surprised when boxer Mike Tyson tried to bite off Evander Holyfield's ears in the middle of a heavyweight bout. And earlier in this tournament, when hot-headed England forward Wayne Rooney got sent off for stomping on Portugal defender Roberto Carvalho's groin, it was hardly out of character.

Players lose their cool in games all the time. They get too mad, too desperate or too determined to get revenge on the spot, and wind up doing something stupid.

But Zidane?

He was about control from the moment he left the tough streets of Marseilles to begin his professional career as a teenager. You only had to see his elegant touch with the ball a few times to know that. Zidane pulled the strings on every team he played for, always able to dictate tempo and the flow of play precisely because he was always in control.

And then came that inexplicable moment this warm summer night when he lost it — and who knows how much else in the bargain.

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