There has never been a final act in soccer quite like Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt.
The France great had been coaxed out of international retirement by coach Raymond Domenech to help his country’s flagging campaign to make it to the 2006 tournament in Germany.
He did exactly that.
Few observers, though, gave the team a chance in the actual competition, especially after a labored group stage. But Les Bleus rediscovered the form that made it the world’s best at the turn of the millennium.
After dispatching Spain in the round of 16, France faced Brazil, the team it overwhelmed in the 1998 final. Even so, Brazil was the favorite with its potent attack of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka.
However, France dominated and Thierry Henry’s goal following a free kick from Zidane saw France make it to the semifinals, where a penalty from “Zizou” was enough to beat Portugal.
In both matches, Zidane was like a conductor, dazzling with his flicks and vision. He was back to his best at the age of 34 and it looked like he would end his career lifting the World Cup.
But there was always an edge to Zidane, a chance he could self-combust.
The final against Italy started well enough for France, with Zidane putting his team ahead early with a chipped penalty kick that bounced down off the crossbar. But the sheer audacity of that spot kick was perhaps a sign that not everything was right with him.
After defender Marco Materazzi headed the Azzurri level in the 19th minute, the match failed to ignite and was seemingly heading for penalties. With minutes of extra time left, the two scorers were at the center of one of the most unforgettable episodes in World Cup history.
Television cameras missed the incident at first, but then suddenly showed Materazzi lying on the ground. Then, replays showed Zidane racing toward the defender following an exchange of words and felled him with his head — his last act as a professional player . France held on until the shootout, which Italy won after scoring all five spot kicks.
But it will always be remembered for Zidane’s headbutt.