• World Cup Memories

'I have no idea what went through his mind'

May 22, 2014
Zinedine Zidane ended his playing career in controversial circumstances © Getty Images

Marco Materazzi was part of the Italy squad that won the 2006 final and played his part in one of the most controversial moments in World Cup history. Talking to Gabriele Marcotti, the centre-back speaks about the incident that the match will forever be remembered for.

Some players get the "can't miss" tag when they're still kids. They find themselves in the best academies, they play international youth football, they're fast-tracked. Not me. Go ahead. Look up Marco Materazzi's caps at under-14, U-16, U-21, Under whatever. Zero.

That's because as a teenager, it looked as if I'd have no future in this game. At 18 nobody offered me a professional contract and I ended up with an amateur team. I only left non-league football on the eve of my 21st birthday. And, even then, I didn't make my top-flight debut until I was 24. The first time I played for Italy, I was 28.

Perhaps because I was never coddled as a young player, I have always been realistic about what I was good at and I've always put the team first. I knew what my job was in 2006 and what our manager, Marcello Lippi, wanted from us. I was a back-up central defender, sitting on the bench behind two legends like Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta. I don't want to say I was happy with it, because, like all footballers, I wanted to play. But at the same time, I knew that those two, especially Nesta, were better than me. I knew that my team, Italy, would have a better chance of playing with them on the pitch than with me replacing one. So I came to accept it.

We won our opening game against Ghana, 2-0, then drew with the United States, 1-1. I was on the bench for both; the most I could be was a cheerleader. Next up was the Czech Republic, a team we needed to beat to win the group. And, after just 17 minutes, Nesta went down injured. He'd been carrying a knock and as he came off, we knew what it meant: he'd be unlikely to return. Lippi sent me on to replace him and it was a shock to the system. I hadn't played a single minute and here I was, in a crucial game, replacing Nesta who, for me, is the greatest centre-back to ever play the game. My nerves were settled almost straight away and in the best possible way. I went up for a corner kick, jumped highest, and headed it past Petr Cech to give us the lead. That settled everyone's nerves, including my own. Pippo Inzaghi made it 2-0 at the end and we moved into the knockout stage.

Australia were up next and, with Nesta out, I was now a starter. We played well in that first half and created a number of chances, so when we went in half-time we felt good about ourselves. But then, just five minutes into the second half, came a stroke of the worst possible luck. Mark Bresciano, Australia's fleet-footed winger, burst towards our area, with Gianluca Zambrotta racing alongside him. I slid into his path and he went over me. I didn't actually make contact with him: though I did catch my own teammate, Zambrotta. It was a foul, yes, because I had cut him off and had not got the ball. But not a yellow, let alone a red. It may have looked rash, but I thought I knew what I was doing, not least because - particularly early in a World Cup - referees are sticklers. Instead, he sent me off.

I was crushed. My teammates would have play a man down for the final 40 minutes, maybe more if it went to extra-time. I felt as if I had climbed Mount Everest with that goal against the Czechs only to be sentenced to crucifixion for this red card. Instead, we hung in there and in the fifth minute of time added on, we were awarded a penalty. Fabio Grosso took on Lucas Neill, who went to ground. You can debate whether there was contact and whether that was a legitimate penalty. But if it wasn't a penalty, well, then my red card certainly wasn't either. I remember waiting for Francesco Totti to take that penalty. It was seconds, but it felt like hours. I'll forever be grateful to him for burying it and sparing me the public pillory that would have followed if we'd lost.

I was suspended for the quarterfinal against Ukraine, so I watched from the bench alongside Daniele De Rossi - who serving the third of the four game ban he got for elbowing Brian McBride in the USA game. We felt weird, dressed in white [FIFA rules mandate that banned players have to wear a different colour], while our teammates were all in blue. It finished 3-0 and we sailed through to the semifinal against the host nation, Germany.

Now, obviously, Germany vs. Italy is a special rivalry when it comes to football. To us it felt like a final. It always does when you play the Germans, but all the more so on this occasion. The build-up had been tense, one newspaper mocked the millions of Italians who had emigrated to Germany over the years. We felt we were playing for them too.

One other incident stands out and fired us up even more. Shortly before kickoff, the tannoy played some 30 seconds of a song we knew well, "Notti Magiche" (Magical Nights). It was the official song of the 1990 World Cup and to people my age - I was 17 in 1990 - it had a special meaning. Italy hosted that World Cup and we felt that we could have won it, but we were defeated in the semis by Argentina. And, in the end - who else? - Germany were crowned world champions. Hearing that song felt like they were rubbing our noses in it. That was supposed to be OUR World Cup in OUR house. Instead, they won. Well, this was THEIR World Cup in THEIR house. And we were determined to do to them what they did to us.

It was an intense, tactical battle between Jurgen Klinsmann and Lippi. We contained the Germans well in the 90 minutes and then, in extra-time we changed gears. Lippi threw in two more strikers, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alexander Del Piero. It was a daring move but it filled us with confidence. It proved our manager had faith in us and that made us have faith in ourselves. We hit the post with Alberto Gilardino, then the crossbar with Zambrotta. I think that's when the Germans realized they could not beat us.

Jens Lehmann, their keeper, made an unbelievable save from Andrea Pirlo. Just after the ensuing corner kick, Pirlo conjured up a no-look reverse pass that found Grosso unmarked in the box and his smooth, stroked finish gave us the lead. It was beautiful; it was Pirlo. This is a guy who thinks at 200 miles an hour and has 360 degree vision. There were six minutes left. We knew we were on our way even before Del Piero made it 2-0, sealing the win.

France in the final had a special meaning for us too. We all remember the final of Euro 2000, a game where we took the lead and created more chances, but in which they simply never gave up, scoring those two incredible late goals. I wasn't there in 2000, but many of my teammates were. I know a guy like Cannavaro probably still had nightmares over those goals by David Trezeguet and Sylvain Wiltord.

Marco Materazzi equalised for Italy in the World Cup final against France © PA Photos

Nesta, who had been touch-and-go throughout the tournament, was confirmed absent and so I was, once again, starting alongside Cannavaro. Six minutes into the game, and matters took a very bad turn. The referee awarded a penalty for my challenge on Florent Malouda. I was actually simply trying to get out of his way, but I'm a big guy, there's a lot of me there and he's very quick and looked for the contact. I'm not blaming him, he was clever, that's what you need to do in that situation. When I heard the whistle go, I was just glad it was early in the game, giving us time to get back into it.

Anyway, Zinedine Zidane steps up to take the penalty, tries to chip Buffon and nearly misses: the ball hits the crossbar, bounces down and back out. There is no question that it crossed the line and credit to Zidane for having the guts to take it that way in such an important game [his final game in football no less.]

Soon after it almost got worse - much worse - for me. Willy Sagnol hit one of those nasty diagonal balls towards our area from just inside our half. I went to put my head to it to clear it away, but instead the ball sliced back towards the goal and Buffon had to make an incredible leap to keep it out. He gave me a dirty look. I shrugged it off: it was a ball at pace, those World Cup balls often didn't have a true flight, these things can happen. But I was grateful that, behind me, was a guy as good as Buffon.

The chance to make amends came early though. I managed to rise above Patrick Vieira and head in Andrea Pirlo's corner to equalise. It was my second goal of the tournament and crucially it meant the slate was wiped clean.

But the rest of the game was a grind. France were tough, smart and strong. It went into extra-time and we were hanging on. Buffon made a simply outrageous save from a Zidane header. It was one of those moments where both were perfect, the effort and the save. On the next cross I was close enough to Zidane to stop him jumping. I put my arm around him and gave him a little tug, with my body on him. Pretty standard stuff: it happens 100s of times a game.

I quickly apologised, but he kept saying, over and over again, that if I wanted his shirt so badly, I could have it after the game. He wouldn't stop. So I said that, instead of his shirt, I'd rather have his sister. That was it. That's all it was.

Maybe it was the adrenaline; maybe it was the fatigue; maybe it was the occasion. But the next thing that happened was so difficult to understand. He walked towards me and, out of the blue, headbutted me in the chest.

It was the last thing I expected. Had I anticipated it and raised my hands, odds are we would both have been sent off. I have no idea what went through his mind. I do know that my conscience is clear. What I said wasn't very nice perhaps, but it was no different from the trash talking that takes place at any level of football, from the schoolyard to, as we saw, the World Cup final. I'm sure he heard far worse many, many times.

Everybody speculated about what was said. The media put forth all sorts of theories, lip-readers were called in and accused me of saying horrible things alluding to his mother and to terrorism. Zidane himself never gave his side, though, sometime later, he did say my words had not been racist or terrorist-related. It allowed me to clear my name and I took legal action against those media outlets who had printed the worst rumours as facts. This was important to me, particularly the stuff about his mother. I may have said nasty things over my career, but I have never referred to anyone's mother. I lost my own when I was 15-years-old and it's something I have always avoided.

Like I said, I am no longer bothered by what happened. For me, it's done and, as I've said many times, if he wants to end this with a handshake, a face-to-face meeting, whatever, I'm ready. Thus far it hasn't happen. But I'd hope that, after so many years, he could put his anger and resentment aside.

In any case, the next thing I knew I was on the ground and Buffon was sprinting off his line shouting for the referee. We were so far away from the play at that stage that Buffon was, I think, the only player who saw it happen in real time. It occurred to me that it was entirely possible that no official saw it either and I know that to this day there is debate over who actually saw it and whether they only caught the replay on the monitor.

Instead, somehow, the officials knew what had happened. And he was sent off. By that stage, we were all so exhausted we were only thinking of penalty kicks. They were down to 10 men, but they still fought and, in some ways, I thought they were getting better. In that sense, it was a relief when the final whistle came and we went to spot-kicks.

I was one of our designated penalty-takers and the thought of not taking it never crossed my mind. Nor did it cross Lippi's. He, of course, could not have known exactly what had transpired between me and Zidane at that stage or whether it somehow affected me. But he knew me so well it only took one look for him to understand that I was fine to take my kick.

It was 1-1 when I stepped up. I just picked my corner and hit it hard and low. Fabian Barthez, the French keeper, knew where it was going, but if you hit it properly, there is no way a keeper will save it. David Trezeguet had the next penalty and it came off the crossbar. It gave us the advantage and, the rest of the way, nobody missed. Grosso, the hero against Germany, converted the last one and we were world champions.

I was a month shy of my 33rd birthday. Twelve years earlier I was in non-league football, ten years earlier in the third division. And here I was a world champion. The guy from the street was on top of the world. And, funnily enough, for me it wouldn't end there. With Inter, we'd win the league the following year and I'd score 10 goals. And, a few seasons later, we'd win the Treble with Jose Mourinho. Funny how I'd won almost nothing until the World Cup and then won everything after that, at a time when footballers are supposed to be too old.

There was one more thing to me to do after the celebrations on the pitch and in the dressing room. I had bought a large "boom box" radio and jacked up the volume as high as it would go. And I carried it with me on the long walk past the media to our bus.

The track it was playing? Why, "Notti Magiche," of course. I was a kid and a fan in 1990 when our hearts were broken by Argentina in the semifinal. And, of course, I'd heard that song mocking us before the Germany game. So what better way to go out than this? This was our "Magical Night." And, as it happened, I was a big part of it.

Marco Materazzi and his Italy team-mates won the World Cup on penalties © PA Photos

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