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A nation asks 'Why?' after Zidane's violent exit

Associated Press

Paris — How could you let a feat-filled career finish with a vicious head-butt? This entreaty to Zinedine Zidane that echoed across the sporting world Monday was especially poignant in France.

For many French people, losing the World Cup to Italy was secondary to the pain of Zidane's exit from the match and the sport. Some shuddered at the example he offered youth from immigrant backgrounds and rundown housing projects dreaming of being the next "Zizou."

Yet other signs showed that France will ultimately forgive this favourite son — even if the outside world never does.

French President Jacques Chirac proudly embraced Zidane as the team enjoyed a rapturous homecoming Monday. And masses of fans spilled into the Place de la Concorde and cheered the captain as he bowed his head to them from the hotel balcony.

Zidane, surrounded by his teammates, remained silent, as he has since he reared back and rammed his head into Italy defender Marco Materazzi's chest in Sunday night's final. He was sent off and France went on to lose the game 5-3 in a penalty shootout after it was deadlocked at 1-1 after extra time.

His agent told BBC radio that he would explain the incident "in the next few days."

"He was very disappointed and sad. He didn't want it to end this way," Alain Migliaccio said.

Speculation swirled about what made 34-year-old Zidane lose his cool in the final moments of his last-ever match for Les Bleus.

A French anti-racism group, SOS Racisme, said according to its sources Materazzi had called Zidane a "dirty terrorist."

Zidane's brother, Djamel, said he too had heard the insult involved either terrorism or their family. He was speaking by telephone from Aguemoune, Algeria, the village where their parents grew up, and had not spoken to his brother since the match.

"One must not speak of terrorism, one must not speak of the family," he told The Associated Press.

But Materazzi denied the accusation, telling ANSA news agency: "It is absolutely not true, I didn't call him a terrorist, I don't know anything about that. What happened is what all the world saw live on TV."

FIFA is looking into the incident as it does with all red cards, spokesman Markus Siegler said Monday.

The France captain still won the Golden Ball award Monday for the tournament's best player, voted on by journalists.

The alleged terrorist slur raised the spectre of the racism that taints troubled French suburbs like those that erupted in rioting last fall by disenfranchised, largely minority, youth.

Zidane grew up in a neighbourhood like that in Marseille, the French-born son of immigrant parents, and went on to become a proud symbol of a multicultural France.

When Zidane led host France to its 1998 World Cup victory, the national team was hailed for being "black, blanc, beur," or "black, white, North African"— a play on the red-white-and-blue of the French flag.

But Zidane has always had a temper. Eight years ago, he was red-carded for stomping on an opponent while playing against Saudi Arabia. At this World Cup, he was suspended for France's third group match against Togo and in total collected three yellow cards and one red card.

Zidane's defenders say that without him, France wouldn't have made it to the final at all — and possibly not even reached the cup.

Live TV coverage of the team bus speeding into Paris from the airport drew some national attention away from Zidane's behaviour.

Chirac called it an "intense" and "difficult" moment in Zidane's career.

"You are a virtuoso," Chirac said. "You are also a man of heart, commitment, conviction. That's why France admires and loves you."

Others were less kind.

French Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour called Zidane's act "unpardonable."

Le Monde wrote in an editorial released Monday: "A man, son of Algerians from Marseille and of modest origin, carried to the pinnacle by an entire country and admired a little everywhere in the world for his fairy-tale history, became with one lone gesture a counterexample for thousands of kids in the housing projects who had dreamed of being a future 'Zizou."'

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