I've heard that the night that the French playmaker Zinedine Zidane ended his career was a very sad night in Paris. The French lost the World Cup Final. Everywhere, people were crying.
So it might come as some surprise that the evening's painful, defining moment has now been cast in bronze outside the Pompidou Center, the city's modern art museum. But there it is, 15 feet high, towering over passersby: Zizou lowering his forehead into Marco Materazzi's chest; the Italian defender leaping back like he has touched an electric fence.
The Headbutt is one of the most notorious incidents of sporting history, but for a few seconds, nobody knew it had happened. When the camera crew finally dug up the footage -- after an eternal delay of perhaps a couple minutes -- the world gasped, as if we, and not Marco Materazzi, had received Zidane's smooth head in our solar plexus. How could he lose his composure like that? The rest is history: Zidane was thrown out of the game, the Italians won the 2006 World Cup, and a legion of lip readers and lawyers spent the rest of the summer trying to figure out exactly what had happened.
Like the grounder through Bill Buckner's legs in 1986 or Steve Bartman's foul ball grab in 2003, Zidane's headbutt, 10 minutes before the start of a penalty shootout, did not defeat his team. But like those pieces of baseball lore, it did become our principal memory of the tournament (you seldom hear talk about the seventh games of those series). Even at the time, with the score tied 1-1, the incident -- like Buckner's error and Bartman's mistake -- seemed to be an omen, or a hex on the French. Zidane had previously said the match would be the last of his career. "He leaves football in disgrace," said the commentator.
But events continued to unfold long after the trophy ceremony. It turned out that Materazzi had insulted Zidane's mother and/or sister, potentially with racially abusive language. (Zidane's parents are Algerian.) What exactly happened was never made clear, but both players were fined by FIFA, the sport's governing body. Not everyone forgave Zidane, but some did. Some said they might have done the same. The revelation that Zidane had been defending the honor of his family helped rehabilitate his reputation. He may have left the game, but he kept his dignity.
The statue, entitled "Headbutt," is by the Algerian sculptor Adel Abdessemed, and coincides with an exhibition of his work in the museum. "This statue goes against the tradition of making statues to honor victories," said Phillipe Alain Michaud, who directed the exhibition. "It is an ode to defeat... Zidane's downward glance recalls that of Adam, chased from paradise."
But as Michaud knows, and surely as Abdessemed intends, it is both not so simple and much simpler. It is an ode to more than defeat; but it's also a representation of very basic feelings complicated by literary analogy. The Headbutt was full of anger, stupidity, and recklessness, but beneath them lay a damaged sense of honor. This makes it hard for even the calmest football fan to wholly begrudge Zidane his actions.
And, of course, Zidane didn't lose the game -- he left it. France lost the penalty shootout without him.
Top photo: Christian Hartmann/Reuters.