The Sadness of Zidane

In the waning moments of the final overtime period of the World Cup Final, a sporting event that is said to be watched by 1 billion people around our planet, Zenidine Zidane ended his illustrious football career. Earlier in the game, he scored a penalty kick goal for France, the team he captains. Now, with twelve minutes remaining in the championship game against Italy, Zidane inexplicably committed a brutally flagrant foul, head-butting one of his opponents in the sternum, knocking the man to the turf with one vicious blow.

After a brief conference between the officials, Zidane was shown the red card and ordered off the field. Eyes down, jaw set, he trudged into the locker rooms beneath Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, the same stage upon which Jesse Owens, in 1936, won four gold medals and irked der fuhrer Adolf Hitler. After the game, which his team lost on penalty kicks — one of Zidane’s specialties — he refused to speak to the media. His coach theorized that something must have provoked the great athlete, something incendiary must have been said about his heritage or mother or homeland. What other explanation could there be for such madness?

In fact, Zidane had been ejected during the World Cup eight years previous, when he stomped a fallen Saudi player. After serving a two-match suspension, Zidane returned to lead France to a championship victory on its home field. He was a hero. And no one remembered his earlier act of violence.

The 2006 final was Zidane’s last match. He had announced that he was retiring after the World Cup. And, just as fairy tales are supposed to go, his ultimate game was going to make him a national hero once more, the brave leader who brought his squad of Senegalese and Algerian immigrants to the pinnacle of their sport. Instead, he shamed himself and his country.

France lost the match on penalty kicks. One of Zidane’s replacements hit the crossbar on his attempt; the Italians made all five of theirs. And it was all over — just like Zidane’s career. The Azzuri celebrated and danced and sang, but most people watching felt no joy, only an abiding sadness that a man had squandered his chance to author a legacy of greatness and, instead, had succumbed to the demons, demoting himself to the realm of the pathetic.

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