The Nick Townsend Column: L'Affaire Zidane: the tournament of ifs and if-onlys that ended with a butt

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The Independent Football

Just imagine if that great puppet-master in the heavens had pulled one string differently. Just contemplate the probable aftermath if Zinedine Zidane's footballing Sat Nav had enabled him to find the net with the same precision that he did twice in the World Cup final of France 98 when he applied that shining dome to the ball in extra time last Sunday.

Just imagine it. Italy's exhilarating voyage of self-discovery would have been reduced to wreckage on the pitiless rocks of Zidane's imperiousness, even before those ominous clouds of La Tempesta, as that nation refers to the corruption scandal, finally arrived on Friday night to cast a foreboding darkness over its domestic football. And even today we would still be lauding a man who perhapswould have narrowly merited that Golden Ball award instead of being a bogus recipient, while deluding ourselves that all was fine and dandy on Planet Football.

If nothing else, had Zidane's header eluded the clutches of that exceptional goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, it would have spared us a week in which the ZZ affair was in danger of becoming a ZZZZ; one in which the lip-readers pronounced their verdicts on Marco Materazzi's observations to him, and the world and its conscience duly passed surplus comment on Zidane's butt reaction: the Marseilles Smacker, the equivalent of the Glasgow Kiss.

Juxtaposed as it was with a period when rather more than one sportsman's sensitivities were being damaged in the Middle East, that inquest could be considered disproportionate. Yet, Zidane being a form of spiritual leader himself, it was inevitable that the inquest would be more prolonged and complex than if it had involved a mere mortal.

One does not question the vehemence of his emotions. Neither we should forget that Zidane does not require too much of an excuse to indulge his baser instincts. There have been cases of "previous", notably in 1998 when, even with his team leading Saudi Arabia 4-0, he stamped on his opposing captain, Fuad Amin, and was dismissed.

He has never been a paragon, for all his sublime grace with the ball beneath his dancing feet. It was not merely his crude response to Materazzi's taunts but the subsequent lack of contrition which truly damns him, this captain whose loss of composure contributed to France's ultimate defeat as much, if not more than, David Trezeguet's penalty miss, despite the claims of his apologists.

There is an argument in his defence. That a racist barb, a religious slur - assuming it was uttered, as Zidane states - does provide mitigation for a player universally acknowledged as best in breed. It does entitle him to react like a common alley cat. But any judge in the courtroom of life would strike that out. No matter the surfeit of beauty in a player's performance, it can never justify the emergence of the beast.

Zidane's dismissal transformed an unsatisfactory final into a bizarre experience. France, even lacking a legend, could still have triumphed. Many of Italy's celebrating victors - perhaps you would like to stand up and take a bow, Francesco Totti - were ill-deserving of their medallions, though few would deny them gratification before the grief of the match-fixing scandal.

The outcome has been guilty verdicts for Juventus (relegated to Serie B, 30 points deducted next season and stripped of the league titles they won in the past two seasons), Lazio (relegated and seven-point deficit), Fioren-tina (relegated and 12-point deficit) and Milan (retained in Serie A, but 15-point deficit next season, and 44-point retrospective deficit last season, which means they will not play in the Champions' League). The punishments are draconian, and club presidents are squealing. The sentences may well be reduced on appeal.

The curious aspect of Italian football is that the discovery of wrongdoing did not exactly surprise anyone. It was long assumed that corruption was endemic, and involved referees and club representatives. Only had players been implicated would it have struck at the very foundations of Italy's footballing faith structure.

As it is, the fire sale starts now, with some intriguing possibilities. Patrick Vieira, currently at Juventus, could be heading back to the Premiership, perhaps even to Manchester United, who would also be keen to tempt Milan's tenacious midfielder Gennaro Gattuso. Juventus's magnificent centre-back Fabio Cannavaro is seemingly coveted by Chelsea and Real Madrid, both of whom could attempt to inveigle the Juve full-back Gianluca Zambrotta.

Against a backdrop of such a scandal, whose tentacles reached out and gripped players of other nations - Vieira, the Czech Republic's Pavel Nedved (Juventus) and Brazil's Kaka (Milan) - it was pleasing that the tournament provided the bounteous offerings that it did at times. Yet if by halfway many of us believed that Germany 2006 had been burnished into a object illuminated with genuine promise, there was no doubt that by the end it had deteriorated in spirit, in attitude and in discipline, debased by the worst excesses of the swindlers and fraudsters.

There have been tournaments that, whatever your alleg-iance, you wanted to continue; when there could never be sufficient glimpses of Pele, or Maradona, on whom to feast the eye. Not this time. The final was probably a match too far. In an ideal world, we would hit the fast-playback button to the semi-final between Germany and Italy and deceive ourselves that their confrontation was a classic denouement. True, the actual final had a curious fascination about it, but only in the manner that the accident in the opposite carriageway does, afterwards leaving you feeling guilty and shocked and cold at having witnessed it.

We will recall a tournament which concluded with more problems facing football than when it began. Diving; feigning injury (even worse when team-mates' hands rise, calling on the opposition to knock the ball out just as they have mounted an attack); that obnoxious card gesture, demanding a yellow for an opponent (cautions for the "offence" appeared to die out after the first occurrence), multiplied after the initial stages and the stakes were raised.

This will also be remembered as the World Cup of redundant strikers. Compress all available talent into the midfield, and leave a frequently remote marauding forward - Thierry Henry and Luca Toni in the final - to distract the rearguard; that was frequently the maxim here, though there must be significance in the fact that the top goalscorer was Germany's Miroslav Klose, with five, who played in tandem with Lukas Podolski, whose own haul was three.

So, the retreat from Berlin. It was accompanied by we members of the media clearing our hotel rooms of around 35 days of newspapers, magazines and cuttings. By the end, there were piled a thousand promises, exhortations, claims, threats, all destined to be pulped into obscurity. A couple remain with me. "There is no better time than now" - the war cry of England's Frank Lampard just before the whole show started. And Zidane's pre-final belief that he was about to fulfil a dream.

For both, it was to conclude with "if only". Both were left to rue missed opportunities at vital moments. For the world's most generously endowed player, he will always regret that he left the world stage with a butt for us to remember him, too; only this one does not carry the addendum: for the grace of god.