The fairy tale of Zinedine Zidane vanished in an instant of visceral rage at the World Cup final. But what followed has proved strangely more compelling -- more human, more profound, more universal.
His now-legendary head-butt -- reacting to repeated insults -- fascinated viewers around the world, competed with war zones for global headlines, and obsessed philosophers and sports fans alike.
And it has elevated "Zizou" into an unlikely hero -- unrepentant and flawed, with an old-fashioned macho morality that has both captivated and appalled millions in the new millennium.
"Above all, I'm human," he said on French television on Wednesday night, after three long days of silence following the brutal move that marked the end of his stellar, 18-year career.
The surreal week started on Sunday night, in the 110th minute of a riveting World Cup final, with France and Italy tied 1-1 in extra time.
Italian defender Marco Materazzi grabbed Zidane's jersey as a French attack on goal passed harmlessly by. The two exchanged words. Seconds later, Zidane spun, lowered his head and rammed Materazzi's chest, knocking him to the ground.
The next few days were a frenzy of worldwide condemnation and speculation: What, people around the world asked, made Zidane crack? The head-butt overshadowed the result of the Cup -- Italy won 5-3 in a penalty shootout -- and threatened to mar soccer's biggest spectacle.
In France, psychologists appeared on talk shows to ponder his motivations. Fear of success? Fear of failure? Childhood trauma?
Even before Zidane spoke out, the iconic French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy wrote in the French press of the "suicide" of a "demi-god," calling Zidane a "super-Achilles" who was humanised by a head-butt instead of a vulnerable heel.
Many intellectuals saw a certain grandeur in Zidane's act -- a gesture of tragic or existential revolt against the huge weight of expectation the world had thrust upon his shoulders.
Others questioned how a player such as Materrazzi -- widely known as a ruffian on the field -- could dare interfere with the workings of a genius.
In a New Republic commentary entitled "Zidane's Priceless Headbutt," Luke Dempsey indignantly observed that the Italian "had the temerity to speak words to Zidane -- who dares speak to Debussy as he composes, to Victor Hugo as he writes, to Edith Piaf as she sings, to Monet as he paints?"
And the incident immediately became the stuff of pop culture legend -- generating Internet jokes, an online game where users mow down a field of Materazzis, and fierce, parodic pop jingles about head-butting.
On Wednesday, when the fallen icon spoke out at last -- in successive interviews on French television, with an olive-green military-style jacket draped over his shoulders -- many around the world seemed to be looking for any excuse to forgive.
"I apologise, to all the children" who watched the match, he said -- but he didn't repent, saying Materazzi had insulted his mother and sister so deeply he had no choice but to respond.
Zidane shifted the blame to Materazzi -- saying he had gravely insulted his mother and sister -- and editorialists across Europe followed his lead.
On Thursday, prompted by Zidane's TV testimony, soccer's governing body FIFA summoned Materazzi for questioning.
Some commentators have not been so keen to overlook the transgression -- seeing in Zidane's act the morality of the vendetta, an outdated sense of honour and machismo that has oppressed women for millennia.
Mick Hume of the 'Times of London' bridled at the suggestion that the head-butt was anything but an act of thuggery.
"It is a sign of the strange times how many big moral debates now seem to be about the antics of footballers. Apologists for Zinedine Zidane have wasted the week trying to read some higher meaning into his assault, claiming it as a righteous blow (against) racism, colonialism and Islamophobia," he wrote.
Soccer coaches in American suburbs -- a world apart from the rough immigrant neighbourhood in Marseille where Zidane grew up and learned the sport -- have held talks with kids about how to deal with anger on the field.
But for many French people, Zidane -- his skills, his character, his life story -- have a significance that transcends soccer.
A son of Algerian immigrants, Zidane had come to symbolise the bright side of a multicultural France struggling with ethnic tensions that exploded in riots in squalid housing projects last year.
He led France to its only World Cup victory in 1998 -- then came back from retirement after he saw his beloved "Bleus" struggle in qualifying rounds.
The story of how Zidane and other aging veterans of the 1998 French squad defied all expectations and made it to the final became one of the great stories of the tournament and prompted wild comparisons -- for many, they were "Musketeers" banding together for one last campaign.
In the end, France seems content to hold on to the legend of the tragic hero Zidane -- flawed by the eye-for-an-eye morality of the housing projects where he grew up -- who rose to great heights, fell from grace, then found a measure of redemption in the love his countrymen bear for him.
Even French President Jacques Chirac called him a "virtuoso," and seemed unconcerned that the incident would in any way reflect poorly on France.