Nothing falls down
more easily than an Italian soccer player--with the possible exception of an
Italian soccer player's pants. What is it with the World Cup champions'
eagerness to drop trou? Last summer five greased-up members of the Azzurri set
hearts aflutter (and left little to the imagination) by appearing in Dolce
& Gabbana underwear ads on signboards across Germany. Now, seven months
later, their most notorious teammate is spontaneously stripping into his black
D&Gs before a stunned audience in a stylish Milan studio. It's hard not to
"I've got one too!" adds his wife of 13 years, Daniela, rolling up her right sleeve to reveal a mini-Cup, to say nothing of her own array of body art.
Their two-year-old daughter, Anna, giggles nearby. Last July her daddy played a central role in the iconic sports moment of the young century: the thunderous head butt he received in the chest after orally provoking French superstar Zin�dine Zidane during the waning minutes of the World Cup final. A global cottage industry has grown around the Head Butt Seen Round the World--chart-topping pop songs, best-selling books, a blizzard of digitally altered YouTube clips--and if history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, the man they call the Matrix would rather embrace the farce.
Cross Dennis Rodman with Roberto Benigni, and you'd get something resembling 33-year-old Marco Materazzi. Like Rodman, he's a tattoo-covered hardman whose flamboyant (some say dirty) antics have often overshadowed his surpassing skills. This is the same player who scored a goal and converted a penalty kick in the World Cup final ... but also committed a penalty and instigated the Head Butt. And who set a Serie A record for goals by a defender (12, with Perugia in 2000--01) ... but later drew one of the longest misconduct suspensions in Italian history. And who recently scored on a bicycle-kick goal ... only to garner more attention for absorbing another head butt, from Sampdoria's Gennaro Delvecchio.
Yet like Benigni, the Oscar-winning Italian comic actor (Life Is Beautiful), Materazzi has also tried to mine humor from misfortune. Last fall he put out a book for charity, What I Really Said to Zidane, listing 249 possible provocations. (Sample: "French philosophy hasn't been the same since Foucault died.") Materazzi also filmed an ad for Nike spoofing the Head Butt in which he subjected his barrel chest to an onrushing linebacker, a police battering ram and a speeding monster truck. Lately, the Materazzi laugh track has given rise to a new chant across Italian stadiums: Tutti pazzi per Materazzi! (All mad about Materazzi!)
Sometimes, though, he can't hide his frustration--not to mention his fear--over the lack of closure to the Zidane episode. Among Materazzi's manifold tattoos is an Italian saying that begins on the back of his left arm and ends on his right: IF YOU CAN SOLVE A PROBLEM, WHY WORRY? AND IF YOUR PROBLEM CAN'T BE RESOLVED, WHAT'S THE USE OF WORRYING ANYWAY? But what if the resolution to his most public problem remains elusive? What if Zidane never accepts his invitation to meet in person, exchange apologies and finally lay their feud to rest?
Eight months after that fateful night in Berlin, the Matrix can't shake his sense that history will remember the Head Butt more than any other event of last year's World Cup. "The United Nations wanted to take separate pictures of us and then bring them together, but I'd be even happier to do it for real," Materazzi says through a translator. "I've apologized to those I have offended. I think [Zidane] should also apologize for what was done, and for what I have gone through as well. If we were to do it through the U.N., everyone would see it. I'm more than willing to do this as a real act of communication for the world and for peace."
Zidane's response? "It's in the past," he told French television's Canal Plus last fall. "Things happened the way they happened. We have to live with it."
Materazzi, however, has one big advantage. While Zizou has retired, the Matrix
is still out on the field--and thriving.
Has any nation ever had a more bizarre 12-month stretch of soccer? On the one hand the Azzurri won their fourth World Cup last July, and Materazzi's Inter Milan has established itself as one of the world's top clubs, reeling off a record 18 straight wins in Serie A. On the other hand the Italian league has been laid low not only by the tragedy in Sicily but also by a corruption scandal last year that resulted in, among other penalties, the relegation of Juventus to the second division. When Spain's Valencia knocked out Inter in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 on March 6, it seemed like business as usual when the Nerazzurri engaged the victors in an ugly hissy-fit brawl after the final whistle.