The Mystery of Zidane's Header

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Zinedine Zidane's infamous World Cup headbutt into Italy's Marco Materazzi

Forget the schmaltzy big-budget TV series French networks are again broadcasting to audiences looking for entertainment during languid summer vacation evenings. The big ticket this season is more reality TV than the usual melodrama: the mystery of what Italian defender Marco Materazzi said to provoke French soccer hero Zinedine Zidane's now notorious burst of violence during Italy's defeat of France in their World Cup final on Sunday. Almost 48 hours after Zidane's furious head-butting of Materazzi in the chest — an act provoking Zidane's ejection, an ignoble end to his otherwise stellar career — the mystery of exactly what set the 34 year-old Zidane off continues to pique the curiosity of people across France, Europe, and around the globe.

Given the ugly spate of racist incidents that have marred professional play in Spain, Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe over the past year, it isn't surprising the first explanations of what prompted Zidane's violent reaction painted Materazzi as a foul-mouthed bigot. The English daily The Guardian led things off with a translation of an audio feed picked up by a TV camera, and depicted an escalating exchange in Italian ending with Materazzi calling Zidane a "(expletive) Muslim, dirty terrorist". Other media analyses relied on lip-readers scrutinizing video images, and came away with interpretations ranging from comments suggesting Zidane's father was a traitor to his native Algeria to insults of Zidane's mother and accusations that his sister is a member of the oldest profession on earth.

Materazzi acknowledged he talked trash to Zidane, but said there was no racism, Islamophobia, or "yo mama" aspect to it. "It was the kind of insult you will hear dozens of times and just slips out of the ground," Materazzi told the Italian daily La Gazetta dello Sport. "I didn't call Zidane a terrorist and certainly didn't mention his mother." For his part, Zidane has only told intimates that the comment that set (and sent) him off was "very serious," but that he regrets the brutal reaction that marked the end to the last game of his long career. Zidane has said he'll explain what happened later this week — quite probably in an interview with pay-TV channel Canal Plus, where Zidane (who is under contract to the station) has made several past announcements on his career.

What will happen when Zidane answers the burning question? Probably nothing. Polls show 61% of French people already forgive Zidane for the head-butt, while 52% say they understand his violent response. Those numbers will probably increase once the exact words Materazzi spoke are known. Meanwhile, even after seeing the head-butt, sports writers voted Zidane the Cup's best player and awarded the Frenchman the tournament's Golden Ball — a superlative their peers denied Zidane in 2001 voting for best pro player in Europe, after he broke a bone in a rival's face with an earlier head-butt.

With time and shifting perspective, fans will remember more who won the 2006 world title (Italy), rather than who didn't (France), or the controversy surrounding Zidane's undignified departure from the final and sport. For now, however, the mystery and debate over what was said and done is better than anything on TV, and fans aren't ready to tune out just yet.