I saw red over insults to my mother and sister, claims contrite Zizou

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Zinedine Zidane revealed last night that "serious" and "unacceptable" insults against his mother and sister provoked his explosion of fury towards the end of Sunday's World Cup final.

Zidane refused to repeat on French television the precise words which he said were hurled at him, three times in rapid succession, by the Italy defender Marco Materazzi.

The former France captain apologised "to all the children of the world and to their teachers" for being seen by a global TV audience of two billion head-butting Materazzi in the chest.

Zidane said, however, that "as a man", he had no choice but to respond to the sort of words - "very hard words" - which the Italian player used against his mother and his sister.

"I cannot say that I regret what I did, because to say that would be to accept that what he said was right," Zidane said in a special live interview on Canal+ television in France. "I would rather be punched in the face than hear words like that.

"What I did was unpardonable. I accept that. That is why I apologise, especially to the children of the world, hundreds of millions of children, who were watching. I have children of my own. I always tell them not to behave as I did."

The interview was Zidane's first public comment since he was sent off close to the end of extra time in Sunday's final. He appeared in jeans, with a grey jacket draped over his shoulder, looking calm and relaxed.

When Zidane launched himself at the Italy defender, he was not only 10 minutes from the end of the game but 10 minutes from the end of a glittering career. He had announced that he would retire at the end of the tournament.

"What I want to say is that it should not always be the player who reacts who is punished," he said last night. "For there to be a reaction, there has to be a provocation. I was 10 minutes from the end of my career. Do you think I wanted to do that? No."

The world's press has been speculating for three days on the nature of the insult which so deeply enraged an apparently mild-mannered man.

Some of the speculation - despite claims that lip-readers and Italian translators were used - has flown wide of the goal. Zidane denied last night that Materazzi had called him, or his family, "terrorists". He made no suggestion, as many reports have done, that Materazzi used racist language.

Other shots at solving the mystery may have been more accurate. Several media organisations say that their lip-readers interpreted Materazzi saying, words to the effect, that Zidane was the "mother of a whore" or "everyone knows that your mother is a whore," while other lip-readers attributed equally tasteless remarks about Zidane's sister to the Italian. Materazzi has admitted insulting Zidane but flatly denied that he had attacked his mother. "The mother is sacred," the Italian said on Monday.

It has since emerged that Zidane's mother is very ill - which may further help to explain the violence of his reaction.

Zidane told French TV viewers that the incident began when Materazzi tugged his shirt. There had been no previous exchanges between him and the defender and no grudges from other matches.

Zidane said that he told Materazzi that he would give him his shirt after the match if he wanted it so badly. That confirmed the Italian's version of events.

As he walked away, Zidane said, Materazzi used "words against my mother and my sister, very hard words, very serious words". At first he ignored him. When he repeated the words for the third time, Zidane said, he reacted "as a man would".

As the son of North African immigrants who became the best and most elegant footballer in the world, Zidane has become an important political symbol in France. Although he has never uttered an overtly political statement, he has become an emblem of peaceful reconciliation between races and a "France qui gagne" (France that wins).

In truth, Zidane, though a calm and sweet-tempered man off the field, has often retaliated savagely against verbal or physical abuse on the pitch. Sunday's sending-off was the 15th red card of his 17-year professional career.

After an initial reaction of shock and disbelief, the French public and politicians have rallied around their hero. An opinion poll yesterday suggested that 61 per cent of the French people forgive him for what he did.

In the earlier part of a 20-minute interview, which tantalisingly left Sunday's red card to the end, Zidane adamantly rejected suggestions that he was at loggerheads with the France manager, Raymond Domenech. He was shown footage of himself walking frostily past Domenech after being substituted close to the end of France's 1-1 draw with South Korea. Zidane said his blank expression was generated by "disappointment" at the result of the game. He had always "respected and listened to" Domenech.

While Zidane was speaking, Materazzi issued his own statement in which he denied racially abusing the French player.

"I didn't mention anything about religion, politics or racism," Materazzi said. "I didn't insult his mother. I lost my mother when I was 15 years old and still get emotional when I talk about it.

"Naturally, I didn't know that his mother was in hospital but I wish her all the best," the Internazionale defender added.

"Zidane is my hero and I have always admired him a lot."