When we tuned in to watch the World Cup finals on Sunday, we expected to see the great Zinedine Zidane end his splendid career elevated to a god-like status, hovering perhaps just a step below Pelé and Maradona.
What we got instead was a crushing reminder of his red-blooded mortality. And it threw us down to a very hard earth.
For 110 minutes of scintillating football, Zidane continued to show us why we regard him so highly, even placing him in a select category above Cryuff, Beckenbauer, Best and his compatriot Platini.
But one nipple tweak and a (terrorist?) comment later, and he lets the footballing world, his fans, France, and mostly himself terribly down. It was perhaps one of the saddest images to ever be seen in a football game, that of a dejected Zizou trudging alone and desolate to the tunnel of Berlin’s Olympiastadion, walking past the polished trophy that millions expected him to hold aloft at precisely that point in the evening.
We could expect and even foresee such a folly coming from the petulant likes of Rooney or Beckham, or even Luis Figo... but Zidane? Not in a match like this, surely?
It really wasn’t supposed to end like this.
But the red mist is like that: Sometimes when you’re caught in it, the mind calculates so many permutations of possible actions and resulting consequences, and in spite of the heightened awareness and a crippling sense of clarity, you conspire against your own will to take the worst course of action.
The red mist is not a loss of self-control. It is in spite of all self-control.
Either team could have won the final. Trezeguet’s missed penalty really wasn’t that bad, in fact it was probably better than most scored penalties in a shoot-out. The Italians were clinical in taking their spot kicks, but so were the French. Both teams had their chances to finish it off in normal and in extra time.
All the same, France could have lost even with Zidane on the pitch. Italy could have won even without Zidane on it. The speculations are endless. And might I add, pointless.
The point is that we will all perhaps never come to terms with why Zidane committed that heinous act, in full view of the world and the best cameras the Euro could buy, and on the sport’s biggest stage, in what was the last competitive match of his life.
We will never understand how a man could summon all the calm in the world to take the penalty that gave France the lead in Berlin’s smoldering cauldron – scoring with ruthless, cheeky efficiency – and within the same game bring a crushing end to his journey, with a foolishness of such epic proportions it even borders on being English.
Let nothing detract from a professional life well lived, though. Frenchmen wondering what they will tell their children of Zidane after this incident need only cast their eyes back for about 15 years to see how much he has contributed to French football. For all that and more, they should – as should all football fans – clap a collective “Merci, Zizou” at anytime he is remembered.
And it is thoroughly fitting that FIFA chose to look beyond that to offer him the 2nd best accolade of the tournament, that of being acclaimed its best player. Once again, judging on his Real Madrid form this last season, who on earth would have foreseen that?
Oh, Zizou... will we ever understand?