Zidane's disgrace: 'I am not excusing it but I can understand'

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The Independent Online

Zinedine Zidane's career ended in disgrace in the World Cup final last night but only as a consequence of an illegal intervention by referee Horacio Elizondo's assistants, said both the triumphant Italian manager Marcello Lippi and his crestfallen French counterpart Raymond Domenech.

The French captain, playing his final game in competitive football, was sent off in the 109th minute before the penalty shoot-out defeat by Italy after a brutal head-butt on Marco Materazzi. Zidane's moment of madness followed a lengthy dispute with the former Everton defender, who aimed a tirade at the 34-year-old following a minor scuffle in the Italian penalty area.

Though neither Lippi, Domenech nor any player would comment on what was said between the pair in the closing stages of extra time, with whispers ranging from racist abuse to allegations that Materazzi had accused Zidane of being involved in the steroid abuse scandal that tainted his former club Juventus, both managers were united in their view that the Argentinian referee only showed the red card after his assistants had studied the incident on a television monitor by the side of the pitch. It is claimed they then contravened Fifa regulations by informing Elizondo of a head-butt that went unseen at the time.

The France coach said: "I don't mention what happens inside the group, I will not speak on behalf of the players, but it's sad having a great player like Zidane sent off, especially in his final game. Something must have happened but I don't know what. I don't think he decided out of the blue to [head-butt] him, that he wanted to leave the pitch, something must have happened. I'm not saying that I am excusing it but I can understand."

Domenech added: "The referee saw nothing, the assistant referee saw nothing and then we have the fourth official seeing the video replay and telling the referee. The sending-off killed the game and they [Italy] played for penalties. It should not have been Pirlo who was man of the match but Materazzi, because he made a drama out of everything. Materazzi organised the sending-off."

However, Italian coach Lippi countered: "You will realise that it was not Materazzi who got the attention of the referee. It was the fourth and fifth officials looking at the video at the edge of the pitch. We did not do anything. They saw it and they called the attention of the referee. When the French fans see television tomorrow they will see what happened and they will think differently. Materazzi was not acting. He took a blow and he was hurt."

The cigar-smoking manager also appealed to Zidane not to retire from football on a bleak note. Lippi added: "I am sorry because I hold him in great esteem. I told him that before the game. It is a shame if he goes on this note. I told him before the game he should not retire."

There was some consolation for Zidane when French President Jacques Chirac paid tribute to him. "I would like to say all the esteem I have for a man who has embodied sport's most beautiful values, displayed the greatest human qualities and made France proud," Chirac, who was at the match, said.

The two sides to 'Zizou'

Won 108 caps for France and scored twice in the 1998 World Cup final as Les Bleus beat Brazil 3-0 in Paris. That night his image was projected on the Arc de Triomphe as close on a million people celebrated on the Champs-Elysée.

In France's first game of the 1998 tournament, in his childhood home of Marseilles, Zidane was sent off for stamping on the Saudi Arabia captain Fuad Amin and was suspended for two games.

Three times voted World Player of the Year and also named European Footballer of the Year in 1998 during a successful club career with Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid.

Helped hasten his departure from Juventus when sent off for headbutting Hamburg's Jochen Kientz in a Champions' League game in 2000. Banned for five games and Juve tumbled out in the first group stage.