- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

PARIS (AP) — Losing the World Cup was bad enough for French soccer fans. Their star losing his temper was downright shameful.

With France and Italy tied 1-1 in extra time yesterday, Zinedine Zidane head-butted Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest and received a red card. France went on to lose the game on penalty kicks.

Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour said he didn’t know what Materazzi said to Zidane, but “we can imagine that there was a provocation.” He added that Zidane’s act was “unpardonable.”

“It’s a strange exit for someone who remains an exceptional champion,” Lamour told LCI television.

French soccer federation President Jean-Pierre Escalettes said he shook Zidane’s hand in the locker room afterward to thank him for his career. The two men didn’t speak.

“He is unhappy,” Escalettes told Le Parisien. “We have to leave him alone. I have nothing to ask him.”

The surreal moment left the entire country wondering what made Zidane lose his cool in the final moments of his last-ever match for Les Bleus.

Despite the red card, the French captain won the Golden Ball award today as the tournament’s best player in voting by journalists.

The French squad received a rapturous welcome back home today, with live TV coverage of the team bus speeding into Paris from the airport and of the meeting with President Jacques Chirac. The return drew some national attention away from Zidane’s behavior — at least temporarily.

Zidane and the rest of the team had lunch with Mr. Chirac, who had words of comfort for the midfielder, acknowledging that it was an “intense” and “difficult” moment in his career.

“You are a virtuoso, a genius of world football,” Mr. Chirac said. “You are also a man of heart, commitment, conviction. That’s why France admires and loves you.”

Former Sports Minister Marie-George Buffet said Zidane’s act was unforgivable for its effect on children watching the game.

“We can’t excuse this gesture,” she told RTL radio, adding that she wanted to know the full story.

The French sports daily L’Equipe wrote: “This morning, Zinedine, what do we tell our children, and all those for whom you were the living role model for all times?” Its front-page headline: “Eternal Regrets.”

L’Equipe addressed its editorial directly to Zidane, comparing his best World Cup moments to boxer Muhammad Ali’s heroics in the ring.

“But neither Ali, nor Pele, nor [Jesse] Owens, nor any other great hero of their standing — the standing that you were on the verge of joining — ever broke the most elementary rules of sport like you did,” the paper wrote.

“It was your last image as a soccer player, Zidane. How could that happen to a man like you?”

Zidane, 34, came out of retirement to lead struggling France to the final. He put France ahead 1-0 with a penalty kick in the seventh minute. It was his 31st goal for Les Bleus in 108 appearances, and fifth in the World Cup.

But Zidane was banished in the 110th minute, and Italy won 5-3 on penalty kicks.

“The blue angel was transformed into a demon,” Le Parisien newspaper said. “He can’t exit this way, it’s impossible. This morning, the sense of incredulousness is still there.”

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