Say it ain't so, Zizou.
For many French citizens, the hardest part of France's World Cup final loss to Italy wasn't the defeat itself but the moment when national hero Zinedine Zidane _ nicknamed Zizou _ ended his career with a brutal act of fury.
With France and Italy 1-1 in extra time Sunday, Zidane head-butted Italy defender Marco Materazzi in the chest and got a red card. France went on to lose the game on penalties. Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour said he didn't know what Materazzi said to Zidane, but "we can imagine that there was a provocation." He added that Zidane's act was "unpardonable." "It's a strange exit for someone who remains an exceptional champion," Lamour told LCI television.
French soccer federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes said he shook Zidane's hand in the locker room afterward to thank him for his career. The two men didn't speak.
"He is unhappy," Escalettes told Le Parisien. "We have to leave him alone. I have nothing to ask him."
The surreal moment left the entire country wondering what made Zidane lose his cool in the final moments of his last-ever match for Les Bleus.
Former Sports Minister Marie-George Buffet said Zidane's act was unforgivable for its effect on children watching the game. "We can't excuse this gesture," she told RTL radio, adding that she wanted to know the full story.
The French sports daily L'Equipe wrote: "This morning, Zinedine, what do we tell our children, and all those for whom you were the living role model for all times?" Its front-page headline: "Eternal Regrets."
L'Equipe addressed it editorial directly to Zidane, comparing his best World Cup moments to boxer Muhammad Ali's heroics in the ring. "But neither Ali, nor Pele, nor (Jesse) Owens, nor any other great hero of their standing _ the standing that you were on the verge of joining _ ever broke the most elementary rules of sport like you did," the paper wrote.
"It was your last image as a soccer player, Zidane. How could that happen to a man like you?"
Zidane, 34, came out of retirement to lead the struggling France team to the final. He put France ahead 1-0 with a penatly kick in the seventh minute. It was his 31st goal for Les Bleus in 108 appearances, and fifth in the World Cup.
But Zidane was banished in the 110th minute, and Italy won 5-3 the penalty shootout.
"The blue angel was transformed into a demon," Le Parisien newspaper said. "He can't exit this way, it's impossible. This morning, the sense of incredulousness is still there." Zidane, whose parents emigrated from Algeria, became a proud symbol of a multicultural France. When host France won the World Cup in 1998, the national team was hailed for being "black, blanc, beur," or "black, white, North African"_ a play on the red-white-and-blue of the French flag.
Many in France's large North African community waved Algerian flags alongside the French tri-color during the 2006 tournament. The multicultural pride was a soothing balm for a country that has often had a difficult time integrating its minorities, including riots in troubled neighborhoods.
Zidane is known for his poise and excellent technique, but he also has a temper. Eight years ago, he was red-carded for stomping on an opponent while playing against Saudi Arabia. At this World Cup, he was suspended for France's third group match against Togo and in total collected three yellow cards and one red card.