For everyone who watched the World Cup final between France and Italy, there was an aura of unreality about the proceedings. Yes, it was supposed to be a sporting spectacle; but more importantly, it was the last bow of a soft-spoken French magician, widely acknowledged as the greatest footballer of his time.
Yet the sporting climax that it was supposed to be was hijacked by arguably the most dramatic curtains to an illustrious career. That head butt… that red card… Rest assured, it will be talked about for a long, long time.
The truth is, the game would always have been as much, if not more, Zidane’s Final Match rather than World Cup Final, even had he not head-butted Marco Materazzi and got himself sent off. Thousands of football fans from all corners of the world switched on their TV sets as much to catch a last glimpse of Zidane as to find out who would take home the cup.
Zinédine Zidane always had a habit of mesmerizing his audience. Be it with those sublime passes, those dizzying shimmies past a handful of defenders, or a perfect shot curving into an inviting net. It is not just his extraordinary footballing skills that make him an object of interest. It is as much his enigmatic personality, his Algerian origins and his humility.
Zidane has always been fiercely protective of his private life, but because of his origins has had to field queries as well as accusations regarding his loyalties. Born in Marseille of Algerian immigrants, he was brought up in La Castellane, a council estate in the northern suburbs of Marseille. However, his stature overshadows any religious/racial divide that simmers in present-day Europe. He has always refused to get drawn into political arguments and steadfastly refused to take sides. That in part has been what has earned him the respect of family, friends, fans and players alike.
Despite fame and fortune, humility has remained one of Zidane’s most endearing qualities. As Michael Owen testifies:
[Players] are full of respect for him, and not just for his skills…. As we walked in after the final whistle [of a Euro 2004 game where France beat England in dramatic circumstances, with Zidane scoring both France’s goals], I looked up and saw Zidane heading straight towards the dressing room while the rest of the French players were dancing around on the pitch…. He’s an unbelievable player, but what we respected most about him was that he wasn’t rubbing our faces in it, unlike some. There’s no messing with Zidane. He doesn’t need to tell anyone he’s brilliant. He just is.(Michael Owen, Off the Record: My Autobiography, pp.316–17)
On-field rushes of blood have not exactly been alien to Zidane. And though his dramatic exit from professional football shocked many of us, he might have done the footballing world a great favour. For the first time FIFA has owned up to the possibility of verbal abuse being a serious issue in the game. Zidane may have muddied his graceful exit, but it might well end up being a compromise towards making the beautiful game a little less ugly. And:
perhaps we’ll never know what was said or what he was thinking. Perhaps the greatest riddle of all is that in destroying his legacy as a sporting hero, he might have immortalised himself as the man who stood up to bigots, real or imagined, no matter the price.(Simon Hattenstone, Guardian Unlimited Sport)
It is impossible—from any point of view, for any reason—to condone what Zidane did. But it is equally impossible to say with certainty that his rash action “snuffed out” his legacy, as the Hattenstone says in his Guardian article.
For Zidane’s legacy was more than the goals he scored, the titles he won, the honours he was awarded. His legacy is a testimony to the fact that good guys need not finish last.
Zinédine Yazid Zidane: Farewell. And thank you for the music.