Perhaps the contradiction is what confounds most.
How could a player known for exceptional class, elegance and an almost regal nature in possession, end his career in such an embarrassing, hot-tempered fashion?
Include the context, and Zinedine Zidane's shocking exit from world football is no less befuddling exactly nine years later.
July 9, 2006: The globe shut down in anticipation of the biggest sporting event offered every four years. After one month, from June 9 to July 9, the FIFA World Cup was ready for its final act.
Set at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, finalists France and Italy had two hours and/or penalties to decide which nation was football's best.
The French and Italians arrived to the German capital as worthy contenders. Italy overcame Australia, Ukraine and ousted host nation Germany in extra time to earn their spot, while France ran a venerable gauntlet of international superpowers in Spain, Brazil and Portugal to reach the final.
Both teamsheets were star-studded.
Marcello Lippi's Italy boasted Gianluigi Buffon, Francesco Totti, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo and others; while Raymond Domenech's France held the likes of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram.
No star, though, shone brighter than Zidane's. The 2006 World Cup (for which he came out of retirement) was announced to be his final professional competition—with the final his last professional match.
In a career that spanned 18 years, three countries and included 15 trophies (both international and domestic), the then-34-year-old midfielder had garnered the reputation as football's best technician. Playing as if the ball were glued to his boots, Zizou was the ultimate attacking midfielder.
Intelligence, vision and the serenity to find options were hallmarks of the Frenchman's game—making him the world's foremost attacking operator.
July 9, 2001: Zidane signed a four-year contract (including an optional fifth season) with Real Madrid, after leaving Italian giants Juventus for £45.6 million. A fee made that him the most expensive footballer for eight years; until Cristiano Ronaldo (£80 million to Real Madrid), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (£56.5 million to Barcelona), Kaka (£56 million to Real Madrid) and Carlos Tevez (£47 million to Manchester City) were all sold in the 2009 summer transfer window.
Five years after joining Madrid, having ended his club career, Zidane had history in his hands once again—playing in his second World Cup final.
The match started wonderfully for the French and their veteran talisman.
In the sixth minute, Florent Malouda latched onto an Henry headed pass, made the most of minimal contact from Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the penalty box and referee Horacio Elizondo awarded a spot-kick. One minute later, Zidane (squared against Italy's world-class Buffon) attempted and converted an audacious Panenka penalty—which hit the crossbar before crossing the goal line.
Zizou's penalty was the fifth-fastest goal scored in a World Cup final. Ironically—possibly foreshadowing the 2006 final's conclusion—in 1974, the Netherlands converted a second-minute spot kick vs. West Germany and lost the match 2-1.
Twelve minutes later, following an exquisite Pirlo corner, Materazzi towered over Vieira in the French penalty area and, making up for his earlier transgression on Malouda, beat goalkeeper Fabian Barthez—equalising the score. A 35th-minute corner from Pirlo resulted in Luca Toni striking the crossbar—France were lucky to enter half-time at a stalemate.
The second half opened with France as the aggressors. Franck Ribery, Malouda and Henry were interchanging in Domenech's front three, with the French midfield clogging Italy's forward momentum. Former Arsenal enforcer Vieira, however, was substituted with an apparent hamstring injury in the 57th minute, and five minutes later Toni momentarily put the Italians up 2-1—from a set piece—only to have the goal disallowed for offside.
Approaching the final's last 10 minutes of regulation, Zidane required medical attention—as he and Cannavaro collided when contesting for a ball. The French legend seemingly made the universal gesture for a substitution but, after quick treatment on his shoulder, was back on the pitch to earn his nation 30 extra minutes of football.
July 12, 1998: Almost eight years before the 2006 match, France played in their first World Cup final (hosted at the Stade de France in northern Paris). The man of that match was Zidane.
Scoring two first-half headers from corners, the "No. 10" was an integral component in France's 3-0 demolition of Brazil. Known more for his brilliant technical ability on the floor, the 1998 final showed the world Zizou was just as accomplished using his head.
Entering the first instalment of extra time in the 2006 final, right-back Willie Sagnol—in an attacking movement started by Zidane—delivered an exemplary ball into the box, which met the 34-year-old's head. Any other direction and the pace/power of Zidane's bullet header would have seen Les Bleus take a one-goal lead after 104 minutes, but the ball was placed centrally, and Buffon saved in spectacular fashion.
Zidane's head, unfortunately, will not be remembered for his 1998 World Cup heroics, nor his near winner in Berlin, but his 108th-minute moment of madness in the 2006 World Cup final.
Materazzi had been an irritant the entire match. Italy were the more rugged of the two sides, and the former Inter centre-back epitomised the Italians' determination and fighting spirit. This led Materazzi, though, to cross a line with Zidane—which eventually saw him sprawling on the Olympiastadion's pitch.
Following an entanglement at the top of France's 18-yard-box, the two players engaged in a verbal sparring match. Materazzi alleges Zidane told him, in response to having his shirt pulled—according to Reuters (via ESPN FC): "If you want my shirt I will give it you afterwards." The Italian, as documented by TV Sorrisi e Canzoni (taken from the Guardian), responded with: "I prefer the whore that is your sister."
Understandably making the French captain upset, Zidane elected to display his anger by trotting a few yards ahead of Materazzi and levelled the 6'4" centre-back with a substantial headbutt. Subsequently undone by a combination of his opponent, his temper, the fourth official and instant replay, Zizou was sent off after Elizondo's impromptu investigation in the 110th minute—10 minutes before the looming penalty shootout.
France lost the 2006 World Cup to Italy on penalties 5-3, but the most intriguing story from the final was not necessarily the winners, but the singular, iconic loser—who lost both his head and the trophy.
Speaking with Esquire magazine, Zizou said: "If you look at the 14 red cards I had, 12 of them were a result of provocation. This isn’t justification, this isn’t an excuse, but my passion, temper and blood made me react."
Zidane—specifically concerning Materazzi—told Spanish publication El Pais (via the Guardian):
If I ask [Materazzi for] forgiveness, I lack respect for myself and for all those I hold dear with all my heart. I apologise to football, to the fans, to the team.
After the game, I went into the [French] dressing room and told them: 'Forgive me. This doesn't change anything, but sorry everyone.'
But to him I cannot. Never, never. It would be to dishonour me. I'd rather die.
The disparity between being the coolest customer on the pitch, yet also having a red-hot temper, is difficult to grasp.
When footballers like Luis Suarez, whose games are based largely on high-octane aggression, are undone by their inner-demons (for example biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup), it somehow makes more sense than seeing a player known for his classy persona and footballing genius headbutt an opponent.
Zidane's legacy is unquestionably marred by its final chapter.
His career, which could have ended lifting a second World Cup—with celebrations in the streets of Paris and his hometown of Marseille—was undone in a fleeting moment of rage, caused by an odious exchange with a distasteful Italian centre-back.
An eternal icon and still beloved in France, the French people have forgiven Zizou his transgression and instead choose to remember the best of times. Nine years after his last professional match ended in disgrace, one can only hope Zidane—behind his defiant exterior—has been able to forgive himself.