By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
PARIS, July 10 -- French soccer captain Zinedine Zidane -- voted the World Cup's top player -- should have been reveling in a hero's welcome Monday afternoon.
Instead, he stood on a balcony overlooking a crowd of cheering fans at Paris's Place de la Concorde a day after a game that ended with not only disappointment but also disgrace.
One of France's few modern-day heroes and one of the greatest soccer players of his generation, Zidane -- in a startling show of rage in the 110th minute of Sunday's World Cup final -- transformed a night of patriotic pride into a morning of national shame and despair across France. Having announced his intention to retire from the sport after the tournament, his head butt of Italian defender Marco Materazzi resulted in a red card and thus likely was the final on-field act of his career.
"He lost his mind yesterday," said Christophe Lescouet, 54, who joined the estimated 10,000 people cheering the team as members appeared on the massive stone balconies of the luxury Hotel de Crillon. "It was ugly, but when someone insults you harshly, some people lose their mind. I am here to show him that I don't hold him responsible for our loss."
"The hardest thing is not to try to understand why Les Bleus lost a World Cup final match that was within reach," the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe wrote, but "to explain to tens of millions of children around the world how you allowed yourself to head butt Marco Materazzi."
The incident was replayed dozens of times on French television: Zidane and Materazzi exchanging words, then Zidane suddenly turning and plowing his head into Materazzi's chest, knocking the Italian on his back.
"Why? Why? Why?" screamed a French announcer in anguish as he watched the replay of the incident that led to Zidane's ejection from the game, which Italy won in a penalty-kick shootout.
French fans speculate that the Italian player insulted Zidane's mother, the worst affront for a son in many parts of the world.
The French anti-racism advocacy group SOS Racism issued a statement alleging that "several very well informed sources from the world of football" said Materazzi called Zidane a "dirty terrorist." Zidane's parents are Algerian.
"It is absolutely not true. I didn't call him a terrorist. I don't know anything about that," Materazzi said when his team landed at an Italian military airfield on Monday. "What happened is what all the world saw live on TV."
Zidane has not said what provoked his reaction. His agent, Alain Migliaccio, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that Zidane told him the Italian "said something very serious to him, but he wouldn't tell me what."
Regardless of Zidane's reasons, a nation that had been lifted out of a year-long malaise by the unexpected success of its aging, ethnically mixed soccer team was plunged into new melancholy Monday trying to reconcile how its hero had fallen so low.
Laurent Languet and his 8-year-old son, Valentin, stood in the heat of the Place de la Concorde awaiting the team's arrival.
"He was so disappointed last night that he wouldn't talk to us," Languet said of his son, who wore a Zidane T-shirt. "Today he feels better, but I still haven't tried to explain to him what Zidane did. It's impossible to explain it to my son, but he understood that to show that much violence, the Italian player must have insulted him fiercely."
That was the excuse much of France offered up in its psychoanalysis of the player who won the World Cup's top player award and at the same time displayed a shocking moment of unsportsmanlike conduct.
Zidane, the 34-year-old son of Christian Algerian immigrants, grew up in a poor suburb of the southern French port city of Marseille. Some fans blamed his upbringing in La Castellane, a tough neighborhood, for his aggressive nature.
"Zidane will remain a great player," Ayoub Argoubi, a 17-year-old resident of the soccer star's boyhood community, told the French newspaper Le Monde. "He may have forgotten us, but his head butt is a leftover from Castellane."
Newspapers around the world were less forgiving.
"Zizou loses control," declared the front page of Beirut's French-language L'Orient-Le Jour, which went on to describe his behavior as shameful.
Zidane has a history of losing his temper under duress in important games. During the 1998 World Cup playoffs, he received a red card for stomping on a player from Saudi Arabia.
Coach Raymond Domenech canceled a parade that had been planned for the Champs-Elysees, where viewing stands and banners of red, white and blue had been prepared for a win-or-lose World Cup procession in advance of Friday's Bastille Day celebrations.
Instead, fans gathered at the Place de la Concorde, the spot where Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were publicly guillotined during the French Revolution.
After a lunch with French President Jacques Chirac, the team clambered off a bus at the front of the crowd, faces somber, looking more like they were bracing for a beheading than like they were being welcomed home.
Despite yells of support from the crowd, Zidane could barely face the gathering from the balcony where the team was standing. His face set in a grimace, he barely looked up, and he gave only a slight wave to the throng baking in the sun below.
Gael Solignac, a 30-year-old computer technician from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, watched from below.
"I was very disappointed with the way Zidane ended his career," Solignac said.
Expressing the sentiment of many French, he added, "First, people will talk about this unbelievable action, then what will remain is a great man, a great player who brought so much to French soccer and French society."
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.