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Jul 10, 2006

A sad end to a magnificent journey

Zinédine Zidane's extraordinary red card had little bearing on the result, but it is undoubtedly how the World Cup final will be remembered.

A global audience tuned in to see the great man's apotheosis, his elevation to god-like status. Instead we saw a crushing reminder of his mortality.

In a sport where we have learned to blow the slightest incident out of all proportion, Zidane's shuddering headbutt to the chest of Marco Materazzi sent a high-voltage shock through the system of anyone watching.

It was so visceral, so immediately and obviously stupid that it was painful to believe Zidane could have done it. When Materazzi went down, the English TV pundit David Pleat insisted: 'It must be Trezeguet, it must be Trezeguet.'

It wasn't the only time Pleat identified a player wrongly, but this time it was understandable. Across the world, and especially in France, fans felt a sense of denial: 'No, it can't be Zizou!'

But it was. And Horacio Elizondo sent off the supreme football icon of the last 15 years, forcing him to trudge past the World Cup on his way to the dressing room in disgrace.

Wayne Rooney can feel a bit better today. Next to Zidane's crime the young England man's frustrated stamp to the unmentionables of Ricardo Carvalho looks like an act of admirable restraint.

The archetypal football genius comes with a fair amount of psychological baggage. Players like Diego Maradona, Eric Cantona, Paul Gascoigne and Hristo Stoichkov all played on a knife edge. When they took to the field, fans knew to expect the unexpected, both the good and the bad.

Zidane seemed different. So calm, so thoughtful, he seemed to bring precision and intelligence to every part of his life. In some ways his headbutt was even more shocking than Cantona's kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan in 1995.

Cantona always seemed capable of such jaw-dropping folly. Nobody could possibly have imagined that Zidane would stain his legacy with such madness.

He was the ultimate French role model. Over the last few days the papers have been rammed with full-page pictures of the 34-year-old endorsing sundry products, from sports gear to yoghurts.

Today's adverts for a mobile phone network ('To our beloved number 10, thank you!') and a bank ('I've already signed for a new team!') suddenly don't look like such inspired marketing.

It was actually the France skipper's second controversial butt of the week, following the pictures of him smoking a cigarette on Wednesday. At least that storm in an ashtray will be forgotten.

Zizou's final match will inevitably affect the way we judge his career. After all, he headbutted someone in the World Cup final. This was no tame press of the head, exaggerated by the Italian. It was a genuine act of aggression, a bull charging at a matador.

It was the 14th red card of the former Real Madrid and Juventus player's career and his second in the World Cup, having been sent off for a Rooney-like stamp against Saudi Arabia in 1998. Of course he will not go down as a violent player, but his image is no longer flawless.

Had he stayed on the pitch and France had won, he would have surpassed everyone but Pelé and Maradona as the best player in football history. Now he will stay on the second level, alongside Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer. Not a bad place to be, admittedly, but one on which he would look down had it not been for one crazy moment.

Mind you, if he can still win the Golden Ball award for the tournament's outstanding player, anything can happen. It is the third time on the trot that the award has gone to a man who slipped up in the final, following Ronaldo in 1998 and Oliver Kahn in 2002.

France coach Raymond Domenech was quick to point the finger at Materazzi. 'I don't know what he said to Zidane, all I do know is that he was the man of the match, not Pirlo [FIFA's choice]. He scored and he got Zidane sent off,' he said. 'Materazzi did a lot of 'cinema', a gust of wind would have knocked him over.'

Of course Materazzi provoked him, with what looked like a pinch of the nipple followed up with a volley of abuse. But such gamesmanship is hardly uncommon, and the Italy defender cannot have expected to hit the jackpot by eliciting such an astonishing reaction.

Domenech also suggested that the fourth official notified the linesman of the offence after seeing a video replay, a claim that has been denied by FIFA. They say the fourth official saw the incident 'with his own eyes' and notified the refereeing team through their headsets.

Whether an off-field arbiter should be allowed to affect decision-making in such a way is a debate for another day. He certainly ensured the correct outcome; it would have been a travesty had Zidane stayed on the pitch.

The dismissal left France without their four most effective attackers (Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Franck Ribéry) yet they dominated the remainder of extra time.

Italy had been so positive and vibrant in the extra 30 minutes of their semi-final against Germany, but this time they seemed paralysed by fear, and sat back even when they had a man advantage. But as quickly as the Azzurri lost their nerve, they found it again to dispatch all five penalties in an impressive display of marksmanship.

Two years after France's elder statesmen bowed out for the first time, it really is the end of an era now. Zidane, Thuram, Makelele and Barthez have gone, and Vieira will surely take over the captaincy for a second time.

The attacking burden falls on Thierry Henry, who had a curious final. He made several sparkling solo runs but did not seem to trust his younger team-mates. On one occasion he burst through the right channel and saw his low cross blocked. Henry then furiously castigated his intended target, Florent Malouda, for not attacking the six-yard box.

Minutes later Eric Abidal and Ribéry worked wonders to steal possession in the left corner and Ribéry hooked the ball into the danger area. Not only was Henry not attacking the six-yard area, he was not even attacking the final third of the pitch, preferring to remain an impassive spectator 35 metres from goal.

Henry is a magnificent player but only on his terms. He must learn to accept and believe in his colleagues if he is to have the same impact for his country that he does for Arsenal.

But for now the future of Les Bleus can wait. Zidane will be forgiven, even if his crime will never be forgotten. He has given so much to the French cause since his debut in 1994, and so much to the football world.

It would be a tragedy to let the end of Zidane's career obscure over a decade of brilliance. The journey is more important than the destination.

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