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The Inscrutable Intensity of Zinedine Zidane’s Glare

The eighth installment in ‘22 Goals’ involves the 2006 World Cup final and a genius neatly skipping out of all the boxes we’d put him in

Daniel Zalkus

The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves Zinedine Zidane, a headbutt, and a delicately placed Panenka in Germany in 2006.

1. The Unfortunate Aftermath of the World’s Slowest Car Chase

So I’m sitting there, in the driver’s seat of my car, looking out the open window down the barrel of the gun that this cop is pointing in my face. Actually I’m not so much looking down the barrel of the gun as I am looking into the beam of the flashlight that the cop is also pointing in my face.

I’m looking at—I’m semi-blinded by—the flashlight. But the gun? It’s there. I am aware of the gun.

This is a night in 1996. I’m in my first year of college. Winter break. I’m back in my hometown.

My girlfriend broke up with me last night. I am having a complicated week.

This is about soccer, I promise. But I should say here, in a record-scratch freeze-frame sort of way, that unlike many of the many thousands of Americans who have been confronted with deadly force during encounters with the police, I did something to provoke this situation.

I’ll tell you what I did.

It started when I got pulled over. I’m doing, like, 47 in a 25. Not great. Also not necessarily a Bonnie-and-Clyde scenario, you wouldn’t think?

Clyde’s girlfriend didn’t dump him.

Anyway, I pull over to the side of the road, and it takes a really long time, I mean a weirdly long time, for the cop to get out of his car and come up to me.

I’m just sitting there. Me and my friend Olivia. We’re waiting. We were out getting pizza, because I was sad.

We’re sitting there watching the lights flash in the rearview mirror for what feels like 45 minutes. And dumbass 19-year-old me has the dumbass 19-year-old idea that maybe this is taking so long because I pulled over in the wrong place.

Maybe he’s not getting out because he wants me to move.

I learn later that the real reason he’s not getting out is that a car matching the description of my car has been reported stolen somewhere in the area, and he’s talking to the station in case he’s dealing with an international auto thief … who specializes in base model Dodge Neons.

But I don’t know that yet. Which means that when I decide to be helpful—dumbass!—and scooch the car ever so slightly forward, the officer thinks I’m trying to make a break for it.

The situation has escalated. Completely unbeknownst to myself, I am making history’s tiniest getaway attempt.

I drive approximately 27 feet at a speed of exactly three miles per hour. The cop throws his sirens back on and screams after me, also going three miles an hour.

If you watched this on fast forward, it would look like a normal-speed car chase.

Cue the unholstering of a service weapon. Cue flashlight beam in my face.

I’m looking at the gun. But unlike the many, many Americans who have good reason to see encounters with the police as extremely and inherently dangerous, I lack the life experience to be afraid. I am a middle-class, teenage white boy in a small town in Oklahoma, and I am viewing this situation through a filter of totally unearned privilege thick enough to blot out the moon.

It never occurs to me that I should even be anxious. What I am, instead of scared, is pissed off.

I am being inconvenienced!

I am somewhere I’ve never been before—on the wrong side of a line, on the outside looking in. And I would like to speak to a manager.

The cop makes me get out of the car. He pats me down. He holsters his revolver. That’s progress.

He shines his flashlight through the window at Olivia. She goes, “Hi.” It is beginning to dawn on Officer McBain here that he has perhaps not made the bust of the century. But if you want to be a hero, you have to try.

So he shines his flashlight on the plastic cups of Dr Pepper we took from the pizza joint. He says, “What are we drinkin’ tonight, kids? Anything we shouldn’t?”

As a matter of fact, yes. We should not be drinking Dr Pepper! It’s loaded with sugar and artificial flavors. I don’t say that to the cop.

He makes me hand over my cup. And this is the moment I remember more vividly than any of the rest of it. I remember this moment more vividly than the part where I had a gun in my face.

He sniffs the cup of Dr Pepper. He deeply inhales. You know in a cartoon, where, like, Pepé Le Pew sniffs a flower? Like he’s drawing the whole soul of the flower up into his nostrils and uploading it into his brain?

The cop does that with my fountain beverage.

If there is alcohol in this Dr Pepper, he is going to find it by sheer force of nose. It’s not pretty. He has a mustache. I am humiliated by the way my Dr Pepper is being smelled.

And what I want is to express my anger, my sense of aggrieved soda justice, with a look. I can’t say anything, so I want to give this man a stare that will puncture his soul and make him feel two inches tall.

I want to look at this police officer, in other words, the way Zinedine Zidane looks at everything.

2. Three Inalterable Truths

I told you it was about soccer.

We are here today to talk about about Zinedine Zidane, the great French midfielder, World Cup champion, Ballon d’Or winner, and pulverizing gazer. Easily the most dominant starer at things since Malcolm McDowell on the Clockwork Orange poster.

What is it like, the Zidane stare?

Well. It’s piercing. It’s unimpressed.

It’s the stare that would result if Darth Maul could be fused at a molecular level with Joan Didion in the Corvette photo.

It features hard, level eyes and angular eyebrows. Commanding eyebrows. Eyebrows you’d follow through the gates of hell. You’d be like, Wow, I can’t believe I followed those eyebrows into hell, and then you’d be like, No, actually, I can believe it. It was the correct response.

There are three inalterable truths of existence.

Truth number one: No cardboard box in the United States of America has ever contained anything liquid, fragile, hazardous, or perishable.

Truth number two: In a fight between two evenly matched opponents, the less angry person always wins.

Truth number three: When Zinedine Zidane’s eyebrows call you, you obey.

We are talking today about the last goal Zidane ever scored, in the last match Zidane ever played in. The 2006 World Cup final. France versus Italy.

Not his first rodeo, World Cup final-wise. Eight years earlier he’d played—though that’s an insufficient word for it—in the 1998 World Cup final against Brazil.

And after France brought home the Cup, his face—his gaze—was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe with lasers. Supergargantuan Zidane stare just blaring out at Paris. It’s a miracle to me that all the drivers on the Champs-Élysées didn’t take one look and go plowing through the front window of Louis Vuitton.

Just unnecessarily monogrammed carnage everywhere.

Here’s something Zidane once said about his childhood. He said, “We were not a family of words. Everything passed through the look.”

Now, we live in a time, and Zidane played during a time, when athletes are expected to tell us what they mean. Words are a big part of the job.

Words in a press conference. Words in an Instagram caption. Words in a Notes app apology for the time they drove past a hot dog stand in a rented Lexus and threw fireworks at it.

Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic actually did that, by the way. Though he didn’t apologize for it.

We expect athletes to explain their motivations. We want to know what goes on inside their heads.

Part of the power of the Zidane gaze, in that light, is that it’s unreadable. His whole career people have been trying to interpret him. But Zidane doesn’t want to be interpreted. After 1998, reporters would ask him, “What’s your message?” and he would say, “I have no message.”

He looks at you like he doesn’t owe you an explanation. He plays like he doesn’t owe you an explanation. And like maybe he’s not interested in yours.

There is a question hanging over this episode like a face beamed onto a national monument. The question is: Who decides what an athlete means?

Do we decide? Does the athlete decide?

Who’s in charge of defining the symbolism concentrated in an actual living person, and what happens if we make someone an icon who never asked to be one?

So yes. It would have been nice to have the Zidane stare to call on during my Dr Pepper’s run-in with the law.

But it’s also the power of that look, the power of what passed through that look, that makes Zidane’s final goal one of my all-time favorites.

2006 World Cup final. Yes, that’s the match in which Zidane was infamously shown a red card, in the final act of his career, for headbutting Marco Materazzi. We’re gonna talk about that too.

This is not a soccer essay. This is an eyeball-potency analyzer.

Let’s talk about what Zinedine Zidane sees.

3. Smaïl & Malika

To understand the story of Zinedine Zidane—including the ways in which you might not be able to understand it—you have to know the story of Malika and Smaïl. His mom and dad.

Malika and Smaïl grew up in the middle of the 20th century in a Kabyle village in northern Algeria. A village in the mountains.

I know about this because Smaïl wrote a book about it, which came out in 2017. It’s called Sur les chemins de pierres, which means On the Stone Paths.

It is so good! I highly recommend tracking it down if you have any interest in Zidane’s story. The whole last chapter is made up of poems Smaïl has written over the years. It hasn’t been translated into English, but you can buy the French e-book—this is what I did, because I’m a rube who knows only one language—and run it through Google Translate.

Inalterable truth of existence number four: You should always read the parent’s memoir.

Smaïl Zidane was born in 1935. He grew up on a hardscrabble farm. The soil was bad. It was arid. His family was hungry a lot of the time. But Smaïl remembered that sometimes, before he went to sleep, his mother would put a drop of honey under his tongue.

Every Tuesday, Smaïl and his dad would load two baskets of fruit onto the donkey and travel down a narrow, winding road on the edge of the ravine to the market town, where they’d sell their wares from a stall.

Algeria at that point, in the 1940s and ’50s, was still a French colony. At home, Smaïl’s family was loving, but he describes the atmosphere as one of “gravity and seriousness.” Language was for “practical information.” There were “no displays of feeling” and “few laughs.”

Hard work mattered more than anything. You didn’t talk. You didn’t emote. You acted. Eking out a living in the mountains was hard enough. You didn’t waste your time or energy on words.

Literally my exact philosophy as the host of a podcast that is just me talking.

There was more opportunity, people said, in France, and Smaïl wanted to make money for his family. So as soon as he was old enough, he got on a boat bound for Europe.

1953. He was 18 years old. He’d never been on a boat before. His parents saved up their money before he left and got him a new pair of sneakers.

Life in Paris was hard. He worked on a construction site, and for a whole year he slept at the site. He slept outdoors.

Not having a place to live meant he could send all his money home. So he slept outdoors during the coldest winter anyone could remember in France.

More years went by. Those years were just a little less hard.

In the early 1960s, not long after Algeria won its independence from France, he finally saved up enough to visit home. On his way to Algeria, he stopped in Marseille, a port city in the South of France.

In Marseille, he bumped into a young woman from his village who had immigrated to France with her parents.

That’s Malika. They looked at each other from across a room, and Smaïl decided not to get on the boat.

3. La Castellane

Smaïl and Malika got married. They stayed in Marseille.

Now, within Marseille, one of the most infamous neighborhoods is called La Castellane. It’s populated mostly by North African immigrants. Poverty and crime are high.

Footnote one, see colonialism.

Smaïl and Malika settle there, in La Castellane. They have four children. Smaïl works in a warehouse, for the Casino convenience-store chain. He also works as a night watchman.

He works all the time.

In 1972, Smaïl and Malika have their fifth and last child. A boy.

They name him Zinedine, though they never call him that. At home, and in the neighborhood, he goes by his middle name, Yazid.

Among the first things Yazid sees as a boy is life in La Castellane.

It’s a crowded neighborhood. A center of drug smuggling, human trafficking, and gang violence. It’s also a community, with its own grocery stores and its own town square and its own ways of doing things.

Yazid sees this little world. He sees its separation from the rest of the city. From the rest of France. Smaïl and Malika instill into their children the principle that they have to look out for each other. The rule is, when you go outside, you go together, and you look out for the sibling smaller than you.

The Zidanes have an apartment in a big housing project. The younger kids wear the older kids’ hand-me-down clothes. At the end of the month, the Casino company, where Smaïl works, lets workers buy expired food at a steep discount, and because of this policy, the Zidanes have enough to eat.

Still, it’s fair to say that La Castellane is not a simple place to live. Everywhere he looks, Yazid sees visible manifestations of the invisible questions haunting postcolonial France.

Are people like him, immigrants and the children of immigrants, French or not French? Are they inside French society? Are they outside it?

Liberty, equality, fraternity. Are you equal in La Castellane? Are you part of the family?

Which side of the line are you on?

Kids of all ages play soccer in the neighborhood, on the street, on the gravel of the Place de la Tartane. Yazid sees that, too. The games are rough. You have to learn how to protect yourself. Yazid is good at it. Really good at it. Soon he’s obsessed.

A scout sees him play, and he leaves as a teenager to join the youth academy at AS Cannes. Cannes as in the film festival. His parents come to visit him on weekends. His sister, Lila, gives him a Walkman and a CD of her favorite singer, Jean-Jacques Goldman. At night, he listens to the CD on repeat to fight off homesickness.

He’s talented, but he soon picks up a reputation for more than just talent. He picks up a reputation for lashing out at anyone who insults his family, his race, or his neighborhood.

He doesn’t talk back. Life is not about words.

He acts. He gets into fights. His coaches put him on cleaning duty as a punishment. They tell him to channel his anger into his game.

4. Yazid to Zizou

He makes his professional debut for Cannes at the age of 16, in 1989.

Three years later, as a seasoned veteran in his late teens, he moves to Bordeaux, where he starts to turn heads with the merciless intelligence and technical proficiency of his game. He wins his first cap for France in 1994, at the age of 22. He comes on as a second-half substitute, against the Czech Republic, and promptly scores two goals.

Now he has the nation’s attention.

When the nation looks at him it sees a playmaker whose game is somehow both furious and clinical.

He’s a midfielder who sees the whole pitch at once, but above all he’s a player who seems at every moment to be turning destruction into precision. Into grace. He seems to make vengeance a kind of ballet.

In a fight between two evenly matched opponents, the less angry person always wins. But being less angry doesn’t mean being less motivated by anger. It means not letting anger control you. It means keeping your cool, keeping your gaze level, so that you can visit a degree of cold-eyed destruction on your adversary that rage alone would never let you achieve.

To watch Zidane play this way is every bit as electrifying as it sounds. Look at his most famous move, the Marseille turn. The pirouette.

You know, the double drag-back thing where he does a 360-degree spin around the ball and somehow ends up on the far side of the defender? Looks impossible when you see it.

It’s a move that requires you to pass the ball backward to yourself twice with the back of your heel while spinning forward—what?!—which is why most players don’t even attempt it. The other most famous star to utilize it was Diego Maradona. That’s the level of technique we’re talking about.

It is also one of the most uncompromising and direct ways to break down a defender. I mean, it’s pitiless.

That’s what the nation sees when the nation looks at him.

What does he see when he looks at the nation?

He wins the player of the year award in Ligue 1 in 1996. He sees that in France, he’s no longer Yazid. Among fans, he acquires an ultra-French nickname. He becomes Zizou.

He sees that being a famous footballer moves you to the other side of the line, as if you’d spun right over it.

In La Castellane you were on the outside looking in. Now, apparently, you’re on the inside.

But are you really? Can you ever be?

5. La Marseillaise

By the mid-’90s, he’s a star. He transfers to the Italian powerhouse Juventus.

At the European Championships in 1996, a controversy breaks out in France that throws doubt, again, on the question of who’s inside and who’s outside.

The French team has a number of players, including many of its best players, including Zidane himself, whose families come from France’s former colonies.

One of these players, the defensive midfielder Christian Karembeu, was born in the French-controlled archipelago of New Caledonia, east of Australia. Karembeu chooses not to sing the French national anthem before games.

You know, “La Marseillaise”?

I don’t want to go off on a whole tangent about this, but I’ll tell you why Christian Karembeu didn’t like to sing that song.

In 1931, there was a big exhibition in Paris. The Colonial Exhibition. Treasures and exotic rarities from France’s colonial possessions.

One of the exhibits was a zoo-style display where “cannibals” were put on view for the French public.

1931. Maybe that seems like a long time ago. Let’s put it in perspective. Mickey Mouse existed in 1931. You could go to the store and buy a Snickers bar in 1931.

You could also go to Paris and watch Black people being made to eat raw meat and perform lewd dances for white people who bought tickets.

One of these “cannibals” was Christian Karembeu’s great-grandfather.

That is a pretty good reason not to sing the national anthem.

Luckily protests involving sports and national anthems never get blown out of proportion. Everyone in France respects Karembeu’s choice and uses it as an opportunity to reflect on the long history of … obviously I’m kidding. It’s a huge controversy.

The far-right-wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen launches a transparently racist attack on what he calls the “fake Frenchmen” and “foreign players” on the France team. He says the French team is made up of players who aren’t truly French.

Now the French team is the center of a debate about national identity.

What does it mean to represent a nation? What does France mean? Who does it belong to? Who gets to belong to it?

There’s a really good book called Soccer Empire, by the historian Laurent Dubois. Soccer Empire explores the legacy of French colonialism through the lens of the national soccer team.

Dubois quotes the eloquent and outspoken Black French midfielder Lilian Thuram, who was born in Guadeloupe, who responded to Le Pen’s critique this way. “When you’re intelligent,” Thuram said, “you don’t respond to these kinds of statements; indeed, when you’re intelligent, you don’t make these kinds of statements.”

Zidane, by contrast, keeps quiet.

He keeps quiet during the anthem. Says he sings it inwardly and doesn’t need other people to see. He keeps quiet about politics. He keeps quiet about race, except to say unwaveringly that he is proud of his Algerian roots.

He keeps quiet about most things, because life is not about talking. Life is about acting.

France loses, agonizingly, in the semifinals of Euro ’96, on penalties against the Czech Republic. Zidane makes his.

Inalterable truth of existence number five: Social questions in sports are never resolved in semifinals.

So the team remains under that cloud of invisible questions.

6. Famous vs. Iconic

In 1998, France hosts the World Cup.

The national team is in a wildly unfair position. How can you unite your home country when a portion of your fan base is insisting it isn’t your home?

Here’s a story I didn’t know until recently.

On the day of the final—France versus Brazil—Zidane’s father didn’t watch the game. He never watched his son’s games live. Too nervous.

A big crowd comes over to the house. Zidane has bought his parents a little place outside Marseille, with a big garden, where Smaïl loves to putter around.

Malika is more into tinkering with mechanical objects. Whenever anything electrical in the house breaks, she takes it apart and fixes it.

So during the final, Smaïl goes out and sits in the garden with his infant grandson, Yazid’s new son, and he holds the sleeping baby. He looks at his plants. He breathes in the scent of his flowers. He thinks, I must be the only person on the block not watching the game. Periodically a burst of cheering comes from the house, and from the neighboring houses, and he thinks, Well, maybe Yazid has scored a goal.

Cheering once. Cheering twice. Cheering three times. France destroys Brazil, 3-0. Zidane, of course, scores the first two of those three goals.

And that’s how Smaïl experiences it. At home.

Cue crowds pouring out onto the streets of Paris. Cue days of celebrations. Cue Zidane’s face staring down from the Arc de Triomphe. Cue hundreds of thousands of people—millions of people—chanting “Zizou for president.”

His father says dryly in his memoir, “And by the magic of sport, we go from the joy of having won to the happiness of being French.”

Before 1998, Zidane is a star.

After it, he’s an icon.

Do you ever think about that difference, by the way? The difference between a famous person and an icon?

Or maybe you’re sick of that word. “Icon.” I don’t think I’m going to blow anybody’s mind here if I say that the word “icon” is a tiny bit … catastrophically overused, in today’s online caption ecosystem. I mean, everything’s iconic now. Your sandwich is iconic. Any celebrity making literally any facial expression is iconic.

If the Crying Jordan meme could draft a mid-’90s NBA All-Star team of overexposed internet phraseology, the word iconic would be, like … Joe Dumars, I want to say?

You know what? Let’s do this. I just spent 20 minutes working this out. For my job.

1996 NBA All-Star Team. Eastern Conference starting lineup.

Anfernee Hardaway, Orlando Magic: Don’t @ me.

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls: I’m not crying, you’re crying. Obviously.

Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons: And I’m here for it.

Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls: I don’t know who needs to hear this.

Shaquille O’Neal, Orlando Magic: The word “this” written as a one-word sentence.

Western Conference.

Clyde Drexler, Houston Rockets: Said no one ever.

Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks: One does not simply walk into Mordor.

Charles Barkley, Phoenix Suns: Large adult son. Writes itself.

Shawn Kemp, Seattle SuperSonics: The word “screaming” written as a one-word sentence.

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets: Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Joe Dumars didn’t make the All-Star team in ‘96. Don’t feel bad for him, he was there in ‘97. A truly iconic comeback.

Anyway, I still think the distinction between “iconic” and “famous” can be useful, especially when it comes to a player like Zidane.

Here’s how I think about the difference: A famous person is someone lots of different people have heard of. An icon is someone lots of different things are about.

Icons are like emotional filters for the eras in which they live. Events pass through them, like light through stained glass. And so they end up meaning things, or coloring the meanings of things, that seem on the surface to have nothing to do with them.

Harrison Ford is a famous person. Quite possibly one of the most famous people who ever lived. But the only things that are about Harrison Ford are the things that are about Harrison Ford. The fall of the Berlin Wall was not about Harrison Ford.

Now think about Madonna. Madonna is an icon. The fall of the Berlin Wall was about Madonna. Obviously not directly—not in a way you can logically articulate—but very clearly. The meaning of the wall coming down was shaped by the range of possibilities, the range of possible thoughts and feelings, that she crystallized for the culture.

Cristiano Ronaldo, to go back to soccer, is probably the most famous human being on earth, but Zinedine Zidane is an icon. The ‘98 World Cup made him an icon for an era during which the West’s relationship to Islam was in crisis, and the West’s relationship to immigration was in crisis, and so was soccer’s relationship to world politics, and so was soccer’s relationship to global finance.

Zidane, incidentally, became the most expensive player ever, the galactico of galacticos, when he moved to Real Madrid in 2001.

If you followed the sport, then how you felt about the world, how you understood the world, was colored by what you knew about Zidane, and by what you saw him do.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

The point here is that Zidane means that much to people. And that degree of meaning, of meaningfulness, can be its own sort of prison, especially for someone who’s not a talker. Someone who prefers to communicate through actions rather than words.

Because when you’re an icon, the meaning of your own actions is out of your hands. It’s not up to you.

“I have no message,” Zidane insisted after 1998. But an entire generation of young immigrants to France became known as Generation Zidane. Far-right politicians continued to spread lies about him and his family.

When you’re an icon, you don’t set the message. You are the message. More precisely, you’re the frame through which the message is understood.

How do you live from day to day when everything you do is bigger than your reasons for doing it? When it’s bigger, in some way, than you are?

7. None Shall Sleep

Very successfully, it turns out, if you’re Zinedine Zidane!

He wins everything. The Ballon d’Or in 1998. The FIFA World Player of the Year award in ‘98, and in 2000, and in 2003. The scudetto twice with Juventus. La Liga with Real Madrid.

At Euro 2000, he scores the winning penalty in the semifinal against Portugal. France goes on to win the final against Italy, its second consecutive major international championship.

In 2002, he scores the winning goal in the Champions League final, and oh my GOOD LORD, if you have not seen that goal, go find a text window connected to the internet and type in “Zidane volley” as fast as your fingers will carry you.

It’s a left-footed volley from the edge of the area. But calling it that is like defining Captain Picard as a tea drinker—there’s a lot more going on. If he’d done this during the World Cup, we might be doing 22 episodes on that one goal.

There’s a YouTube video that sets it to the aria “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot; it’s been watched about 5 million times, and 4 million of those are me. Conservative guess.

For all his success, Zidane retains a tendency to lash out under pressure. Fourteen red cards in his career—that’s more than Roy Keane got for Manchester United.

In 2006, he’s the focus of a soccer documentary called Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. A great soccer movie. It’s directed by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno. The film follows him through a single match, Madrid versus Villarreal, in real time. Seventeen cameras trained on him. At halftime the filmmakers show a montage of world news on the day of the match. We see a car bomb going off in Iraq and a little boy running from the flames wearing a Zidane shirt. At the end of the movie a scuffle breaks out and Zidane gets sent off for fighting.

Which side of the line are you on? Eight years of contentious, relentlessly brilliant, unreasonably high-stakes soccer between 1998 and 2006. In 2004, he retires from international soccer, but in 2005 he un-retires after a mysterious voice speaks to him in the dead of night and tells him to return to the French team.

It’s bigger than this dimension. That is the gargantuan machinery of meaning that lumbers into motion when the 2006 World Cup kicks off in Germany. It’s political. It’s aesthetic. It’s cultural. It’s spiritual.

Quarterfinals: France versus Brazil. On the pitch, Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Kaká. MY GOODNESS.

Zidane plays one of the best individual matches I think I have ever seen—including setting up Thierry Henry’s winning goal.

France wins 1-0.

Semifinals: France versus Portugal. Zidane scores the winning penalty.

He puts France in the final. Again. He’s already announced he’s retiring after the tournament. The final against Italy will be his last match.

Because the stakes aren’t high enough already.

8. Clouds of Flanders

Berlin. The Olympic Stadium. July 9, 2006.

Before the match, Shakira and Wyclef Jean come out to perform their hit “Hips Don’t Lie.” The entire point of dribbling in soccer is that hips lie all the time. I’m stating facts.

Sixty-nine thousand people in attendance. One of them is the acclaimed Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, who will later write a celebrated lyrical essay called “Zidane’s Melancholy.” The surest sign that an athlete is an icon is that Belgian novelists become interested in their melancholy.

Famous belletristic writers don’t write poignantly intense belletristic essays about athletes all that often, with the obvious exception of George R.R. Martin’s blogs about the Jets.

“Zidane’s Melancholy” opens with the following description of the scene before the match:

Zidane watched the Berlin sky, not thinking of anything, a white sky flecked with grey clouds lined with blue, one of those windy skies, immense and changing, of the Flemish painters. Zidane watched the Berlin sky over the Olympic Stadium on the evening of 9 July 2006, and felt the sensation, with poignant intensity, of being there, simply there, in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, at this precise moment in time, on the evening of the World Cup Final.

Award-winning Belgian novelists, like midfielder’s hips, sometimes make shit up.

Again, France is playing Italy. The most dominant defensive team in the tournament. A team that’s conceded only one goal in its run to the final. And that was an own goal against the United States.

No one can score on them. They have to do it themselves.

On the pitch, at the same time, in this final, we have Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti, Luca Toni, Gennaro Gattuso, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon, Zidane, Thuram, Henry, Vieira, Claude Makelele. Good Lord.

Opening whistle. Here we go.

I remember this World Cup so well. It felt—well, for an event that was supposed to be a celebration, it felt bad-tempered. Contentious. It felt like the universe was in a mood.

There was a whole slew of ongoing scandals involving FIFA and the integrity of the game. There was a record number of yellow and red cards.

This was also the tournament in which Graham Poll, the English referee, gave a Croatian player three yellow cards in one game. Incredible accomplishment.

And heading into the final, I don’t know, the day felt heavy. Everything seemed a little too serious. A little too important.


Italy has this defender called Marco Materazzi. Sort of a professional asshole. Big physical centerback who loves to get under people’s skin. The sort of pest who leaves bruises.

If you watched the final, maybe you remember Materazzi. He played a pivotal role. Hm, what was it?

Sixth minute of the match. Materazzi brings down Florent Malouda in the area.

Penalty to France. Was that Materazzi’s pivotal contribution? Well, stay tuned.

Less than 10 minutes into the game, France’s no. 1 penalty taker, Zinedine Zidane, steps up to the line with the chance to become the first non-Italian to score against Italy at this World Cup.

9. Transcendent Lightness

Here we go. The referee blows the whistle. Zidane stares down at the ball.

The Zidane stare is on full blast. If the sky is a Flemish painting, the Zidane stare is a heat gun someone is aiming directly at the canvas. The ball turns orange and starts smoking, basically. He takes a quick, confident step forward.

The Italian goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, one of the best who ever did it, starts to dive to his right, and then checks himself at the last possible instant, either seeing or sensing, correctly, that Zidane is going to shoot down the middle. But he doesn’t quite guess right, Buffon.

Because what Zidane does now is one of the most audacious things any soccer player has ever done.

As Buffon falls to the ground in preparation for blocking a low, hard shot into the net, Zidane doinks the ball into the air. He hits a chip shot at the crossbar. And the ball smacks against the crossbar. It bounces down toward the ground. The spin carries it off the underside of the crossbar and onto the grass. It bounces once, about two inches inside the goal line, and then bounces forward out of the goal.

The ball never touches the back of the net.

Zinedine Zidane has just scored a Panenka in a World Cup final.

I’m going to try to explain why I think this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in the tournament.

Because it’s not obviously beautiful, is it? It’s a silly shot. Maybe the silliest shot in the game. It’s not a goal in keeping with the force of the Zidane stare. It’s not in keeping with the profundity of Zidane’s significance, or the stakes of the moment, or the mood of the day.

Antonin Panenka, by the way, was a Czech midfielder in the ’70s. Pioneered that little doink-down-the-middle penalty. He scored one in the final of Euro 1976 to win the match for Czechoslovakia against West Germany. Said he considered himself an entertainer and wanted to score a goal that would amuse the crowd.

It’s just such a surprising thing for a player to try in that moment. A soft shot right down the middle. It’s a shot so fundamentally ludicrous that in Italy it’s nicknamed Il cucchiaio, “the spoon.”

The spoon—the most inherently comical utensil. There’s nothing dramatic about the spoon. Imagine if the plot of, like, Game of Thrones had turned on spoon-to-spoon combat? Would have been an improvement, frankly. Do not @ me. (That’s a Penny Hardaway reference.)

What is so beautiful about this goal—what I love about it so much—what makes it one of my very favorite goals. It’s that it felt free.

In this match where everything felt so weighty, in this career where everything felt so dramatically supercharged, Zidane stepped up to the line and gave us this little moment of lightness. Of surprise.

When reality is heavy enough, lightness can be transcendent. And this … well. Liberty, equality, fraternity. This was liberté.

The Panenka showed us a genius neatly skipping out of all the boxes we’d put him in. Proving there was something in him beyond our power to define. And in the process showing us something new that the World Cup can be.

This is the story of the World Cup, right? Zidane and his teammates had already shown that the World Cup can be a venue for the negotiation of national identity. Now he showed us that the World Cup can also be a venue for something more elusive, and more defiant, in a way.

It can be a place for the exhilarating refusal of expectations. It can be a place where, for a few glorious seconds, you really don’t have a message. It can be a place where Zinedine Zidane can score a cheeky goal that’s just a cheeky goal.

10. The Unfortunate Aftermath of the World’s Most Charming Goal

And that … man. Can I just, like, do some unhappy sighing for a second? Because—UGGGGH—that should be the end of the story. Zidane’s penalty should be the moment everyone remembers from this match. Literary Belgians should be writing essays called “Zidane’s Mischief,” not “Zidane’s Melancholy.”

But the goal is not the lasting image of the 2006 World Cup final.

Nineteenth minute. Andrea Pirlo takes a corner kick for Italy. Never a sentence you want to hear if you’re not on Pirlo’s team. Marco Materazzi scores with a header. We’re tied 1-1.

Surely the biggest contribution Marco Materazzi will make in the match!

Except it isn’t. Because in extra time, in the 104th minute, Zidane has a chance to win the game for France. He’s unmarked in the middle of the area. Hits a hard header at goal. The perfect ending to his career, the storybook ending, is wide open, right in front of him.

But Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper, the guy Zidane beat with the Panenka, gets his revenge.

He makes a desperate leap and blocks the shot.

Six minutes later. Materazzi says something to Zidane. They’re jogging down the pitch side by side. Materazzi kind of tugging on Zidane’s shirt. Jawing a little bit. Zidane separates himself, gets a few feet ahead of Materazzi, then turns back and headbutts him, hard, in the chest.

In a fight between two evenly matched opponents, the less angry person wins.

What Materazzi said has been the subject of intense debate and speculation and competing and inconsistent accounts from both players.

British tabloids hired lip readers in the aftermath of the event to decode the provocation. I’m sure it could be worse, but I can’t see how.

There was a theory for a while that Materazzi called him a terrorist. Zidane has said Materazzi insulted his mother and his sister. Remember his sister, who gave him the Walkman when he was homesick?

Materazzi says, I didn’t bring up his mother, but the sister, yeah. I did insult her.

It doesn’t really matter, and I don’t really want to talk about it.

What matters, I think, is this. We are not a family of words. Everything passes through the look. And when the look isn’t enough, we act.

The stakes are so high. The danger is so real. When you go out, you go out together. You learn to look out for yourself. And you look out for the sibling smaller than you.

It’s as if the universe is taking revenge for the freedom of the Panenka. Zidane’s career ends with a red card. He’s sent off.

The FIFA World Cup Trophy, which goes to the World Cup winner, has already been brought out. It’s sitting on a little white podium. He has to walk right past it. Does not give it a single glance. Which is probably fortunate, because a glance from Zidane at that moment would have reduced that trophy to ore.

He’s back on the wrong side of the line. On the outside looking in.

And look, he’s fine. France, without him, loses on penalties, 5-3. Millions of words are written and spoken about the meaning of his action. All over the world, it’s subjected to a degree of interpretation that makes the “Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars” discourse look like a quaint local dispute.

But he’s fine. He’s still named the best player of the tournament. He’s gone into management, more recently. Two separate stints at Real Madrid. And he’s great at it, of course. He’s won the Champions League and La Liga. Eyebrows get more commanding all the time.

He’s fine.

But the headbutt is what everyone remembers from that match, maybe from his entire career. And all I want to say about that is that it’s too bad. It’s too bad.

The headbutt became iconic. No question.

But the goal? The goal was something better than iconic. It was human.

It was a moment when Zidane was nothing more and nothing less than himself.

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