IF LITERATURE still has time for an Elizabethan tragedy, consider Zinedine Zidane a worthy protagonist. With the intense concentration of a master craftsman, Zidane achieved everything football offered, before throwing away a large chunk of it because of an inability to live down momentary lapses of reason.
The world first saw intimations of mortality eight years ago at the Stade de France when he had stomped on Saudi Arabia skipper Fuad Amin. Redemption in Paris came through a brace at the same venue, giving France their only World Cup. (But Zidane's expulsions against Deportivo la Coruna in 2004-05 and Villarreal in the following season showed little changed.)
The wait could have ended on Sunday but for a bizarre head-butt into Materazzi. The Italian central defender had held Zidane in an embrace that could not have been very friendly before a French move broke down and both were walking away.
Reams will be written on what happened or did not happen but Zidane shocked the world by suddenly turning back and using his bald head to hurt Materazzi.
Materazzi collapsed as if hit by a weapon of mass destruction and Gianluigi Buffon did the rest to ensure France, definitely the better team till then, were not only denied numerical equality but also deprived of their pole star.
So what angered Zidane? His agent Alain Migliaccio said on Monday that the headbutt was provoked by something "very grave" which he would reveal all when calmer in one or two days. "I know Zizou well and he'll not reveal what Materazzi said to him but he'll in one or two days' time explain why he had such a reaction. When he's calmer, he'll speak," he said.
Zidane is believed to have apologised to his teammates after his headbutt led to a send-off and possibly cost France the World Cup.
His team-mate Jean-Alain Boumsong told Sky Sports that Zidane apologised to them for being sent off. Asked whether Zidane had apologised, Boumsong said: "Yes, yes of course. He's very disappointed to have made that fault."
Despite everything, French President Jacques Chirac hailed Zidane as a "football genius" at a lunch for the French team on Monday. "You're a virtuoso, a genius of world football, you're also a man of heart, of commitment and of conviction," he said. "That's why France admires you and loves you."
During the World Cup, Zizou had sparked a French renaissance that looked like ending in another laser image on the Arc de Triomphe. Even his penalty in the final was a statement of class; the two-step routine being similar to the effort in Munich -- but there, he had fired low. Buffon, expecting something similar, went to his right but saw the ball caress the upright and bounce in.
Then, Zidane turned one way and immediately swivelled to find Frank Ribery, showed the kind of understanding with Thierry Henry that makes it seem almost preposterous that he had not aided the prolific striker to score before coming to Germany.
A header brought the best out of Buffon and even Pirlo's quick back-pass when Zidane was around showed the kind of respect Italy had for him. But for a man to get provoked 12 years after making his international debut and that too in a World Cup final, showed the tragic flaw without which the drama of Zidane would not be complete.
"I'm a fan of Zidane, but the fourth official saw what happened. It's bizarre to end your career like that -- if it's the end of his career," said Marcello Lippi, Italy's coach.