In the latest edition of our ‘What If?’ series, we look back on the most infamous World Cup Final incident in recent memory. What would have happened if Zidane had kept his cool and decided against headbutting Materazzi? Let’s find out.
History As It Stands
Zinedine Zidane, the greatest midfield player of his generation, was hoping for the most epic of swansongs; by bowing out on the grandest of stages. France met Italy in the 2006 World Cup final. The game was tied 1-1 after 90 minutes (coincidentally Zidane and Marco Materazzi were the goalscorers for their respective countries).
In the 110th minute of the game Zidane and Materazzi exchanged words which lead to Zizou driving his head into the Italian defender’s chest. Zidane was brandished a red card and dismissed from the game – France went on to lose the final 5-3 on penalties, and one of the greatest players ever was left to retire with a stain on the end of his otherwise illustrious career.
History As It Could Have Been
Zidane took offense to Materazzi’s comments – allegedly, regarding Zidane’s sister and the world’s oldest occupation – and a lapse in judgement cost himself and his country a second World Cup, while also depriving himself of a departure from the game befitting footballing royalty.
The final was far from enthralling – and in truth without said event it was pretty forgettable – both teams shared the possession – but Les Bleus had created far greater chances; both numerically and in potency.
Italy had limped into the final. Barely beating the Aussies, the Azzurri dispatched Ukraine and then needed additional time to bypass the Germans in the semi-finals.
The extra-time against Germany had taken its toll on the aging Italian legs. On the contrary, France had defeated a collection of the globe’s greatest to pave their way to Berlin: Spain, Brazil and Portugal.
The sending off hurt France mentally. They lost their talisman. Everything good that France produced stemmed from the Marseillais playmaker. Zidane’s dismissal left France more than just a body short; it was as if the team had lost a limb. The heart of the French side beat a fraction slower with his omission.
Franck Ribery and Thierry Henry had previously been substituted, which left Zidane as the leader of the pack, and as the main focal point in French attacks – all of which diminished when Zizou headed for the tunnel.
The result after extra-time would had remained the same. Zidane was a magician on the ball but there was a spell of mediocrity cast on the 2006 World Cup that not even Zinedine could banish. The main difference of course would have been energy. France, a man short, had to chase shadows.
Andrea Pirlo took on the mantle of ‘pinball wizard’, which took whatever air was left, out of the French tyres. With the French captain still on the field the game remains in parity and the French don’t need to run around the pitch like headless coq au vin.
Onto the lottery of a penalty shootout. Zidane who put France ahead from the spot after seven minutes, elects to take the first French penalty and converts. Not only does Zidane help rally the troops with his presence – but he also adds depth to the French spot-takers.
So much so that David Trezeguet remains collected when taking his peno; doesn’t fluster, doesn’t falter and doesn’t cost the French a World Cup. Instead he helps France go tit-for-tat with Italy after five penalties apiece.
Italy’s Luca Toni (who had been pedestrian all tournament) attempts to drive a spot kick home but instead, balloons it over the bar, in the manner of Roberto Baggio in the final of ’94. Deja vu!
The deciding kick rests at Florent Malouda’s left foot – which is good enough to circumvent the mighty Gianluigi Buffon.
The win allows France’s golden generation to shimmer one last time, rather than face the abrupt distinguishing that came as a result of the loss. Sadly for some of Italy’s best; Buffon, Francesco Totti, Fabio Cannavaro and Andrea Pirlo, World Cup glory never beckons.
For Zinedine Zidane – the greatest asset France ever gained from Algeria – is bestowed the honour of being able to ride off into the sunset to take his place on the throne of, not only football’s greatest, but World Cup greats as well.
Craig Farrell, Pundit Arena.