Look at Zidane headbutt Marco Materazzi. It is, honestly, chilling. Pause and go back: it's the way he flicks from "yeah, yeah nice one, mate, yeah: light banter to full-on headbutt in, like, three steps. The way he plants that back left leg then pushes off it. The turn, the pivot, the change of pace: in many ways, headbutting Marco Materazzi was one of the most graceful and athletic movements Zinedine Zidane ever performed on a football pitch, and as one of the greatest and most elegant players ever to take the field, that really is saying something. And then there's the power: clunk, right to the sternum. I am saying that this headbutt hurt, like seriously winded him. Headbutt like a sniper shot. Headbutt like a horse kicking a barn. Headbutt like a truck speeding through concrete. And then – and then – the context:
Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final.
In what Zizou knew was going to be the last game of football he ever played.
The curtain drawn on one of the most astonishing careers in world football was this: putting his forehead through the breastbone of a former Everton defender and ruining your country's last chance of silverware in a generation. And I don't think his heart rate even raised itself one beat.
It sort of gets lost in the wash how good a footballer Zinedine Zidane truly was. Zizou's peak came during an electric time for world football – OG Ronaldo in his various pomps, the emergent Ronaldinho, Luis Figo the first line-crossing galactico, Vieira, Henry, Michael Owen (remember when Michael Owen was good? When Michael Owen slalomed through the Argentinian defence so fast at World Cup '98 that he accelerated past his teens, shot out of his twenties and woke up a 38-year-old man who spends every Sunday really carefully cleaning his Z-Series?), an impossible Dutch squad of Kluivert and Bergkamp and Davids, the mania of late-90s transfer fee exploding Serie A (Vieri, Veron, Vieri again, Crespo, Mendieta, Buffon).
In among all of that, Zinedine Zidane broke the world record transfer fee, single-handedly won a World Cup final, scored the greatest Champions League final goal ever, wore the #5 and managed to bald into an exceptionally aggressive-looking Spock. Do we talk about him as being one of the best to ever do it? We do, but we also don't. At one end, we have Messi and Ronaldo, tussling it out as their legs die beneath them to be remembered as the one exemplar alien who changed the game. Before that we have Maradona and Pele, stone-set legends replayed in sepia tones. Between that we have Zidane, just before the advent of HD, bossing two World Cups eight years apart.
Zidane as a player was at once a double-hard central mid and energetically creative attacking forward who also scored loads and loads of headers, sort of like if Roy Keane double-footed into Christian Eriksen so hard the two men somehow forged together, and also Alan Shearer's forehead, which was watching on nearby, cracked off from the rest of him and somehow got clattered into the whole mess. That Zidane was able to pull France to two World Cup finals eight years apart – i.e. at two entirely separate stages of his playing career – acts as the ultimate testament to his enduring quality.
In '98, he was the central cog in a perfect whirring machine, the catalyst through which every French play was made, a sort of all-running, all-passing central hub surrounded by French quality. In '06, his legs in decline, he was somehow more powerful: as the remnants of the French side crumbled around him, he dragged them like a gnarly junkyard dog pulling a toddler from a fire, punting in no-fuckabout penalties and somehow scaring the creaking defence behind him into keeping clean sheets by sheer force of personality alone. In '98, Zidane won the World Cup final with two bullet headers by way of being a footballer. In '06, he took them to the final just by being a bastard.
The '06 final wasn't a vintage one until the 110th minute. Zidane and Materazzi were involved from the off: the Italian defender conceded the 7th-minute penalty that Zidane would convert, taking a one-step run up then lofting the ball over the greatest goalkeeper in the world, and then in off the crossbar, the most "This Is My Last Game And I Am Zinedine Zidane" expression of power ever – until he headbutted Materazzi, anyway – a penalty so cocky it could win a dance off in 1970s New York, a penalty so egotistical it would start a wellness magazine about itself (As YouTube commenter "Tommy Too Turnt Up" more succinctly puts it: "balls the size of moons to take that"). The France side around him were the ageing remnants of the all-conquering 1998–2000 squad, and at times they very much looked it: as Italy turned the screw, there was more than one last-ditch Lilian Thuram tackle, multiple Fabian Barthez saves. Everything that did happen went through Zidane: he was on free kick and corner detail, he was surging in the midst of every attack, his shining bald pate was composing the French team from sharp to deep. But Italy pushed back, and then Italy got a corner, Pirlo whipped it absolutely perfectly and Materazzi (again!) put in the header. Italy 1–1 France. And then the game sort of… dissipated.
This has happened in almost every recent World Cup final but for the '98 one Zidane first bossed. In '94, Italy ground up against Brazil until both teams took it to penalties; in '02, fair fucks, Brazil absolutely Ronaldo'd Germany 0–2; in '10 Spain nicked it 0–1 in extra time; in 2014 Germany did the same. Finals are tense affairs because every atom of your body wants to win it on the biggest stage in the world, and nobody wants to be the lad who messes up and drops a save or shanks a penalty, so they turn into these tense little squabbles, fencing matches with balls, death by a thousand small cuts. In '06, Italy looked like they had the legs to take France down, yes, but at 1–1 almost anything can happen – most times it's a goal, or a dramatic penalty win. This time it was Zizou going tonto and headbutting Materazzi in the chest.
I have to tell you that headbutting a man on the football pitch is an absurd thing to do. On-pitch football violence is actually so rare it normally becomes iconic. Accidental violence is a par for the game (crashing into a goalkeeper, going studs up on a winger), but actual semi-meditated violence is always remembered: it is Keane on Haaland, Dyer on Bowyer. It is Zidane on Materazzi. I'm trying to think, but I don't reckon anyone has got headbutted in the middle of a World Cup final, before or since. That Zidane thought to do it at all was insane; that he thought to do it during the biggest game the concept of sport has to offer is impossibly deranged; that he did it with the cool calm detached air of a European sniper makes it possibly one of the maddest acts a human being has ever performed.
Photos of Zidane walking away from the headbutt and past the World Cup trophy paint a portrait of agony, anguish, despair. But watch Zidane in the seconds after he has headbutted Materazzi in the heart and he is chillingly calm, talking to the referee with a face that notes almost surprise that he is about to be sent off. I know this is perverse, to deify a man for his violence, but: if you did not love Zidane before he headbutted Marco Materazzi, it was hard not to love him after. There is complexity in the emotionlessness of it. Zidane seemed almost surprised to learn that you are not allowed to headbutt people.
It instantly became iconic. Zidane's headbutt was one of the first proto-memes, a .gif remixed again and again a thousand times and distributed on those weird linkless pages that existed before the social web (we'll never know the true meme potential of the Zidane headbutt; imagine it happening now, in 2018! Imagine the tweets!).
The story behind the 'butt is that Zidane was incited to push his head fully into Materazzi's chest cavity because the Italian defender "insulted his sister", but I'm not so sure. Zidane was 33 and had been on football pitches all his life, so he must have heard sister-banter, mother-banter, dad-banter and brother-banter – all the banters. What I'm saying is I don't think anyone could say anything to me during a World Cup final that would honestly make me headbutt him half to death.
But then there are frustrations that must come from being a glowing, powerful force that is slowly waning. As Zidane's legs betrayed him, as his pace softened, as every single cigarette he had ever smoked at half time caught up with him, he must have known that this was the last time he would ever duke it with the best of them. He saw an iconic French squad, creaking and ageing, slipping down a low ramp into a puddle behind him. Italy had the legs on France, and though I'm not saying the act of headbutting Marco Materazzi was a reaction to that – you do not simply hammer your face into Marco Materazzi because it's been 1-1 for 80 minutes – there must have been some frustration there; Zidane, a glorious career over, a single-handed chug to the final, the greatest tournament in the world and one he'd already tasted the success of, and then the looming ghost of failure, of the end, of career death.
Pivot on the spot and force it all into that planted leg, and headbutt it through Marco Materazzi. Kiss the world goodbye. If you were a Hollywood scriptwriter, Zidane would've stayed on the pitch, buried the winning penalty, screamed delirious on the shoulders of his teammates one more time. But this isn't Hollywood, it is life. Life headbutts through Marco Materazzi so hard he yells about it. In a way, that's a way more fitting end to a career than success could ever be.
See here for more coverage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.