Phantom of the Opera - final act will haunt Zidane forever

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2006, 12:00am

It was Grand Opera all the way - and when the curtain came down at the Olympic Stadium, il Divo was missing from the world stage he was supposed to leave in a blaze of glory.

France's captain Zinedine Zidane, the il Divo - Italian for 'divine male performer' - had been banished in disgrace. The two billion-odd worldwide television audience saw Zidane headbutt Italian defender Marco Materazzi on his chest deep into extra time after heated words were exchanged between the two.

But Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo - the same official who sent Wayne Rooney off - missed the incident. And it was only after play was halted owing to Materazzi writhing on the floor, was Elizondo informed of the headbutt by the fourth official, who apparently saw the incident on video.

For the first time at the World Cup, we saw the referee send off a player having been influenced by outside forces. The irony of the situation is that Fifa - mainly its president Sepp Blatter - is totally against video refereeing.

Zidane fell victim partly to technology, and to the intervention of a fourth official. This is commonplace in sports like rugby union, where the touch judges can bring to the notice of the referee any foul play. But this must be a first in football, certainly at the World Cup.

It was classical opera. The theme had been set earlier by none other than Placido Domingo, the Spanish tenor, and pop vocal group Il Divo, who sing in operatic fashion. They were part of the entertainment put on by the organisers before the match and during half-time.

But the real drama unfolded in four parts on the pitch and it all involved Zidane. The first act came early in the first half when Zidane put France in the lead with a penalty - an impudent chip that deceived Gianluigi Buffon, rebounded off the underside of the bar and dropped down a foot over the line.

The second act came in the first period of extra time when Buffon denied Zidane a second goal and footballing immortality, and probably France the World Cup, when he finger-tipped a header over the bar.

The third act was the moment of madness from Zidane, which French coach Raymond Domenech later described as a 'totally useless gesture'.

Domenech said: 'I'm not saying I'm excusing it but I can understand. It was too bad, a totally useless gesture. We regret it and he also regrets it.'

Domenech, who confirmed that it was the fourth official who had brought the incident to the notice of the referee, was asked if he thought Materazzi had goaded Zidane into the assault.

'I don't know. I think Materazzi was perhaps involved. Something must have happened. I don't think Zidane decided out of the blue to react in such a way that he was sent off.'

The fourth and final act was the saddest. When it boiled down to penalty kicks, the man France needed most, their captain cool, was missing on the pitch.

'We missed Zidane a lot in the final 10 minutes. His absence cost us hugely,' added Domenech.

Opera aptly originated in Italy. It is a dramatic art form. And as the curtain came down on Zidane's career, it was absolute theatre at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday night.