And oh, was it hard to sit through, knowing that the Mets were battling against the Marlins without the aid of their most fervent fan. I feigned interest as the French and Italian players took turns idling in midfield or dropping to the earth as if shot by a sniper whenever an opponent whisked by. I offered my Eurofriend a concurring cluck about Zinedine Zidane's artistry as the shaven-headed French star kicked the ball past the goaltender on a charitably awarded penalty shot in the seventh minute of play. But heck, I thought, even I could have scored under that circumstance: in hockey a padded goaltender tends a net six feet wide and four feet tall; in football a normal-sized and exceedingly desolate fellow guards a goal twenty-four feet wide and eight feet high.
Yes, Italy's tying goal eleven minutes later was spectacular, a header by Marco Materazzi off a supernaturally directed corner kick from Andrea Pirlo. French striker Thierry Henry dazzled with fancy footwork in place, as if he were engaged in a tap-dancing competition. If only he or any of his countrymen could send a diagonal pass! And then the game settled into the scoreless drudgery for which the world game of football is principally known to lovers of American baseball, basketball, football and spelling bees. Even ice hockey, which finally came to its senses this past year and, by enhancing the conditions for scoring, acknowledged that fans' ardor is not fed by defense alone. To this jaded observer, the waxing and waning passions of the assembled fans in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, absent any hint at a scoring chance, provided a unique anthropological interest: what on earth were they cheering for? What were these devotees seeing, or smoking? Would they be as likely to paint their faces in national-flag colors at a chess match?
Football is said to be the beautiful game because it is a continuous-action sport, unlike its American counterpart or baseball, which are both stop-action sports; indeed a baseball aficionado will say that the beauty of that game lies in the way that bursts of action punctuate a contemplative yet suspenseful inaction. Even basketball and hockey, which may have long periods of nonstop action, tend to be interrupted regularly by goals, fouls, offsides, commercial breaks, and brawls.
Soccer, I thought while rolling my eyes until they clicked back in my head, has institutionalized time stoppages of its own, what with the criminal flopping and "gentlemanly" kicks out of bounds that permit the waterboys to play their parts. With players on the go until they drop, and rules dictating that once taken out, a player may not return, much of the charm of the "beautiful game" is that normal-sized athletes - like bicycle racers and golfers and not like NFL behemoths or NBA giants - may vivify formerly held values of endurance as well as agility and skill.
Yet even World Cup heroes may not be said to be better conditioned than NBA players, who do not get to set their games for cruise control, although certainly there are star performers in the NHL or the NFL, sports in which free substitution exist, who are not physical marvels. As for baseball, well, one of its two major leagues permits a sometimes rotund individual to take a regular turn at bat without ever taking the field, and another to throw the ball without ever having to measure his prowess at the bat or around the bases.
I indulged in such musings as the French and Italian players loped desultorily up and down the field as if their coach had ordered them to run laps. The game droned on to a regulation tie and an overtime. And then, startlingly, the game gripped me. As Zidane and Materazzi jogged upfield together, jawing at each other, Zidane moved past him, as if closing the discussion - only to turn, plant, and level a vicious head butt into his antagonist's chest.
These two had scored their team's only goals to that point but Zidane was the one accustomed to scoring - in fact, many regard him as the greatest player of our generation, as Franz Beckenbauer and Pele had been for theirs. Materazzi went down - no question about a dive this time - and Zidane went out, red-carded to the sideline with ten minutes to go in the second overtime period. France would have to play the remainder of the game a man short. Nor could Zidane return to take part in the shoot-out, and as he had already his announced that this game would be his last after a long and valiant career, his final act on a football field would be one that when replayed on television, would prompt parents to shield their children's eyes.
What had driven him to such brutality, such madness? Materazzi denied on the day after the match that he had done or said anything to provoke the incident. Responding to a report by SOS Racism that he had called Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, a "dirty terrorist" seconds before the French captain head-butted him, the Italian midfielder said, "It is absolutely not true, I did not call him a terrorist. I'm ignorant. I don't even know what the word means."
On the following day, Materazzi acknowledged "insulting" Zidane, who still had not given his side of the story, but he continued to deny calling him a terrorist. He did not say precisely what he had called Zidane, but added, "It was one of those insults you're told tens of times and that always fly around the pitch."
Although disgraced and reviled, Zidane was nevertheless voted the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player. They can't take that away from him, just as they can't take away Barry Bonds's home runs, or Mike Tyson's knockouts. But whatever anger drove Zidane and so many other unlikely lads to the top may have been the same thing that brought them down.++