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Get your pitch fix with SI.com's writers in the World Cup Blog, a daily journal of World Cup commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
7/12/2006 03:47:00 PM

A case of he-said, he-said

Posted by Jonah Freedman

Remember the World Cup? It was that little soccer tournament that apparently preceded the main event, the Headbutt Heard 'Round the World. Italy's Marco Materazzi says he indeed insulted France's Zinédine Zidane, but didn't invoke any references to terrorists or family members. Zidane's account is slightly different -- he says Materazzi targeted his mother and sister, but he won't go into details.

Whom do you believe? Is Materazzi as much at fault here as Zidane? And finally, what will you remember most about the '06 World Cup: Italy winning a fourth title or the sad ending to Zidane's amazing career?

7/09/2006 07:27:00 PM

The bitter end

Zinédine Zidane
Zinédine Zidane watches his career end with this red card from referee Horacio Elizondo.
Ron Scheffler/US PRESSWIRE
Posted by Mark Bechtel

BERLIN -- If we learned one thing from the World Cup final, it's that Zinédine Zidane doesn't understand this whole Hollywood-ending concept. He set it up all right: coming out of retirement with France in the middle of a horrid qualifying campaign to lead the side into the World Cup, where, after lulling foes to sleep in the group stage, he proves that there's still some life in those 34-year-old legs. Wins over Spain, Brazil and Portugal had a lot of people thinking fate was with Les Bleus, that Zizou's remarkable career would end with him lifting the World Cup trophy for a second time.

Instead, he went nuts and attacked Marco Materazzi. He just lost it at a pivotal time, head-butting Materazzi in the chest with 10 minutes left and an obviously gassed Italian team on its heels. "Zidane being sent off was the key moment of the game," France coach Raymond Domenech said. "In extra time, the Italian team was waiting for penalties." And with Zizou no longer on the pitch and France reduced to 10 men, that's what it got.

Purely from a football standpoint, Zidane's sin was grievous, but it certainly didn't cost France the Cup. His teammates soldiered on without him to preserve the draw and, unless Domenech was going to stick him between the sticks, Zidane's presence in the PK shootout wouldn't have changed the result.

But the damage Zidane did to himself is far greater than the damage he did to his teammates. He took what should have been a glorious occasion for him and his fans and ruined it. Even if he had played horribly and France had gone out 6-0 losers, the overwhelming sentiment still would have been, We're witnessing the end of an era, and what an amazing era it was. Before the final, Italy coach Marcello Lippi, who's not exactly liberal with compliments of opposing players, described him as "the best player there has been in the last 20 years."

Part of what made Zidane great was his passion. Much has been made of Zidane's upbringing. The son of Algerian immigrants, he grew up in a tough neighborhood outside of Marseilles. He was often taunted; one of his first pro coaches recalled that Zidane spent most of his first couple weeks with the club on cleaning duty after he punched an opponent who made fun of his roots. Eventually he channeled his anger -- indeed, there are those who will tell you he uses it to fuel his play -- but on occasion it's reared its head for a little butting. Five years ago he head-butted a Hamburg SV player in a Champions League game. In the '98 World Cup he stomped a Saudi Arabia player. And tonight he let his aggro get the best of him on what should have been the biggest night of his career.

So instead of our lasting image of Zidane being his celebrating the seventh-minute PK that made him just the fourth player to score in two World Cup finals, it's of him slinking off the pitch after receiving a fully deserved red card, leaving his teammates to fight the fight without him. And instead of making us look back fondly on his career, he made us wonder if we should have been that adoring in the first place.

• If we learned another thing from the final, it's that something needs to be done about dodgy refereeing. Actually, the refs aren't entirely to blame. The players deserve their fair share for going down so easily -- and for chirping in the ref's ear en masse immediately thereafter, either demanding a card or accusing the guy rolling around on the ground of play-acting. Florent Malouda hit the deck pretty easily and drew a PK, and later in the game it looked like Materazzi took him down in the box, but that time referee Horacio Elizondo waved play on.

Then there was the whole Zidane/Materazzi controversy. The head butt happened behind the play. One minute things are moving along nicely, the next minute there's a gangly Italian on the ground who looks like he's been shot. Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon immediately makes a beeline for the linesman, gesticulating wildly. After a few minutes of sorting out what happened, Elizondo shows Zidane a red card. The place went nuts. (FIFA doesn't show replays of controversial plays in the stadium.)

Every time Italy touched the ball, it was met with some of the loudest whistling you'll hear. The assumption of the fans was that Materazzi made a meal of it and the Italians goaded Elizondo into sending off Zidane. Obviously, Elizondo got it right, but it did seem as if he did so by accident. Elizondo didn't see the head butt, and the linesman didn't make the kind of ruckus you'd expect if he had seen it. Not until the fourth and fifth officials saw the replay on the sideline was Zidane given the gate.

So Elizondo missed the two biggest plays of the game. And it's hard to blame him for either. You try making a dive/no-dive call at full speed when the guy rolling on the turf is a pretty fair thespian. And there was no reason for him to be watching Zidane and Materazzi as they walked up the pitch.

The solution: FIFA needs to put another set of eyes on the players. Either use a second ref or institute video replay. Yes, the latter would remove the human element, but it might also remove the diving element -- and that's a tradeoff I'm more than willing to make.
7/08/2006 01:22:00 AM

My pick to win final is ...

Zinedine Zidane has shown signs of the play that made him a three-time FIFA Player of the Year.
Simon Bruty/SI

Posted by Grant Wahl

BERLIN -- If you'd told me before the World Cup that one of my predicted finalists (France and Brazil) would make it to July 9 at the Olympiastadion, I'll admit it: I probably would have chosen the Seleçao. But here we are, and it's France's Zinédine Zidane, not Brazil's Ronaldo, who is about to put the exclamation point on one of the great careers in the history of the sport.

Not so fast, however. An Italy team that had been confined to "Old Europe" status (miserable showings in both World Cup '02 and Euro 2004) has suddenly discovered the meaning of team. No fewer than 10 different Azzurri players have scored in this tournament, and a masterful performance by Fabio Cannavaro has held Italy's back line together from the start (despite the loss of Alessandro Nesta).

Let's not diminish what's at stake here. If France can win, the soon-to-retire Zidane will raise his second World Cup and take his place on the Mount Rushmore of international soccer -- right alongside Pelé and Diego Maradona. If Italy can win, the Azzurri will merely grab their fourth World Cup title, the second-most in history behind Brazil's five.

Beware preconceived ideas, however. Flash back to the final of Euro 2000, when the same two teams met in Rotterdam, Holland. Italy, which had been playing horribly defensive soccer the whole tournament, turned on the offense and took a 1-0 lead that lasted until the dying moments of the game.

Then, miraculously, France's Sylvain Wiltord scored the equalizer in the final seconds of regulation, and David Trezeguet slammed home the golden-goal winner in extra time. (Remember the golden goal? We miss the golden goal, if only for the theater of it all.)

SI had only decided to cover that game at the last second, and so (without a press credential) I scammed a ticket to the game. I ended up sitting amid a huge group of Italians, who ended up blubbering even worse than the homestanding Germans did after their semifinal loss on Tuesday. Not a pretty sight.

Why do I tell you all this? First, to give you some context for this game. France has owned Italy in their last two high-profile meetings, the Euro 2000 final and Les Bleus' penalty-kick elimination of Italy in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal. Second, because you shouldn't assume that Italy will "play defensive" just because that has been the key to its success so far in this World Cup.

The fact is, the Italians have scored 11 goals in six games and finished the other night with four forwards on the field against Germany. This is not your father's Azzurri, to put it mildly. Marcello Lippi's ragazzi can attack with abandon, and I'm thinking (O.K., hoping) they decide to do so in this game. You've got to like it when two defenders (Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso) have scored two of the sweetest goals of the World Cup.

As for France, which team will show up? The one that was magisterial in beating Brazil and Spain, or the one that barely finished second (to Switzerland!) in group play? The biggest difference, of course, has been Zidane, who has rediscovered a verve that we hadn't seen from him since the early part of this century. But give credit as well to workhorses Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele, who have made me feel slightly better (but not entirely) about their taking a spot from a potential second striker (read: Trezeguet). Those two have given Zizou the freedom he needs to work his magic.

So whom do I like? It's an excruciatingly tough game to call. I've gone back and forth all day, and rational thought (and defensive might) suggests Italy should probably win. But I'm a sucker for a fairy tale, and Zidane has come too far not to finish it off the right way. He'll get his moment of genius. Les Bleus will get the win.

France 1, Italy 0.

Take out the chisels and start updating soccer's Mount Rushmore.