Italy 1 France 1: Italy redeemed in final shoot-out but Zidane's career ends in shame

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The Independent Football

The Italians may wish to call it the night their football got its soul back. The rest of us will remember it for one of the most self-destructive acts of violence on a football pitch, a moment that vandalised a great reputation and ended a brilliant career. Zinedine Zidane's last act as a footballer was to headbutt viciously the chest of Marco Materazzi and then step off the stage forever at the brandish of a red card.

The question that prevailed last night, as the fireworks exploded and the Italian players paraded the World Cup in ecstasy, was quite simple: why did Zidane do it? How did a player of Materazzi's mediocre talents - a forgettable former servant of Everton - provoke one of the greatest players ever into such a moment of madness? From a man like Zidane, playing his last game before retirement, it felt like an unholy denial of everything he represents.

The mind recoils at the possibility of an unspeakable remark from Materazzi to Zidane that might, revealed in the days to come, spoil the memory of what had been a great match. This tournament has been mercifully free of the issue of racism, but that is the unsaid allegation against Materazzi that nags away. Marcello Lippi later claimed that the fourth official only warned the referee of the incident after seeing it on a television monitor. If so, a serious breach of the rules has taken place. Television evidence is not yet admissible in the course of a game.

The truth will have to come from Zidane but, as a man who is publicly so utterly devoid of emotions, a man whom not even his team-mates claim to know well, it could be a secret he takes with him into retirement. The sadness is the manner of his leaving.

Last night, all the charges were still unproven. But Italy's achievement was real. They had written an extraordinary new chapter in the life of their national game with this fourth World Cup victory as they enter a week in which the very fabric of Serie A is under threat from the government investigation into corruption that could make a decision in the next 24 hours.

Juventus to be relegated, perhaps Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina too, the reputations of their greatest clubs ruined, their best players potentially dispersed. And now this. The Italian players celebrated with almost uncontrollable joy. They carried their cigar-smoking, tough-talking coach Lippi on their shoulders. Finally they took the trophy out of the stadium with Nessum Dorma being played: this night was every Italian's greatest dream.

In the tradition of their German hosts, Italy held their nerve through five immaculately converted penalties in the shoot-out. David Trezeguet crashed the second of his side's against the crossbar. It fell to Fabio Grosso to convert the penalty that won the World Cup and he did so with spectacular assurance.

Earlier, Zidane's seventh-minute penalty, conceded by the slightest of touches from Materazzi on Florent Malouda, had opened up this game beautifully.

Italy were forced to attack and on 19 minutes they had an equaliser through Materazzi, who headed in a corner from Andrea Pirlo with ease.

Materazzi? It seems extraordinary that a player who once sat down by a Goodison Park advertising board and cried at his third red card for Everton should have such a profound effect on such a vaunted stage. A goal, his part in the Zidane red card and a converted penalty in the shoot-out.

Rarely are matches divided into such distinct periods but the growing domination of Italy in the closing stages of the first half was balanced by a France team that came out reborn after the interval. On six minutes, Malouda charged into the area and Materazzi bounded over. He withdrew from the tackle but caught Malouda's right foot, which impacted on the Lyon midfielder's left and he went down. It was a tough call but referee Horacio Elizondo, who dismissed Wayne Rooney against Portugal, seemed to get it right. Not a flicker of emotion passed Zidane's face as he sized up the penalty and the manner of his execution suggested that this is a man whose nerves are tempered from different material to other international footballers.

Facing Gianluigi Buffon, most people's idea of the world's best goalkeeper, Zidane selected the sand wedge rather than the driver for his shot. As the goalkeeper went to his right, Zidane chipped a gentle shot that clipped the bar and dropped over the line. It was a courageous penalty to take in a World Cup final.

In the 19th minute, Materazzi out-jumped Patrick Vieira to nod the ball past Fabien Barthez and in. He almost had another later from identical circumstances but for a nudge on Vieira and, on 36 minutes, Luca Toni headed another right-wing cross against the crossbar.

In the first half, Thierry Henry, hurt in a first-minute collision, had not yet flicked into gear. By the start of the second he was attacking the Italy defence with the same kind of startling directness that he normally reserves for the likes of Aston Villa.

Henry's first charge took him past Gennaro Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta and Cannavaro before he tapped a lame shot at Buffon. Later he wriggled and hustled past Mauro Camoranesi and Grosso. He was withdrawn injured in extra time having contributed a good performance that fell short of a match-winning one. Defeat in the Champions' League and World Cup finals in the space of two months is a tough burden for Henry to bear.

In the minutes before he was dismissed in extra time, a Zidane header required a brilliant save from Buffon. Then the madness. Zidane had tangled harmlessly with Materazzi and then, as he walked past the defender to face up to a goal-kick, turned back. He dipped down and drove the bony roof of his skull into the chest of the player out of sight of the referee. Uproar. Buffon and Cannavaro called in the linesman and forced Elizondo to consult him. The verdict was red for Zidane.

Who had the last say? The nature of the delay in coming to a decision suggested it was the fourth official not the linesman who witnessed Zidane's headbutt. If he saw it on the television monitor, the decision is a dreadful break with procedure. But there is no turning back, Italy are champions, the 2006 World Cup finals are over and so too sadly is Zidane's career.

Match details from Berlin

Tactics: Italy They played on France's uncertainty from set pieces to make Materazzi's goal. But Grosso's flank advances were not as effective after half-time.

France: Turned it around after interval, Henry more damaging in a central role and relishing the chance to make direct runs at the heart of Italy's defence.

Referee: H Elizondo (Argentina).

Man of the match: Cannavaro.

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