Like a lot of Americans who even vaguely care about soccer, I first heard of Zinedine Zidane
during the 1998 World Cup, when he scored two goals in the final to beat the ur-footballers Brazil for France's first (and still only) world championship. He is a spectacular athlete, labeled by Pele as the the best player of the decade. That's why his behavior at the end of Sunday's 2006 World Cup finals was so devastating, when in the 110th minute he inexplicably lost his cool and head-butted Italian Marco Materazzi in the chest, resulting in a red card. Materazzi and Zidane had scored the two goals that led to the 1-1 tie, and ten minutes later the game went to a penalty shoot-out that France, unfortunately, lost by a whisker.
Zidane didn't lose the game, and the coin-toss nature of penalty kicks could have just as easily gone against the Azzurri. In fact, in many ways Les Bleus
were the more deserving team: with a lineup consisting of "ancient" players (Zidane is 34, goalkeeper Barthez turned 35 during the tournament, defender Lilian Thuram is 34, and so on) they proved that experience, skill, and determination can trump mere age. They are also free of the ugly stench of scandal enveloping the Italian team, many of whose players will be returning to clubs that are likely to be demoted to the minor leagues for match-fixing. And most importantly, Les Bleus are the most ethnically mixed team of the tournament, showing the face of a France that could be. That is part of Zidane's enourmous appeal: born in France to Algerian-immigrant parents, he is the personification of French integration and excellence.
The sting of Zidane's red-card farewell is tempered by the fact that he was awarded the Golden Ball for best all-around player of the World Cup. And France's whisker-thin final defeat is better viewed as an extraordinary victory for a team that nobody thought would even get to the quarter-finals. Zizou, we'll miss you.