The men who score goals in the World Cup final expect to leave the stadium in triumph, the first steps on the way to a lifetime of bathing in the glory.

Marco Materazzi of the new world champions, Italy, left the Berlin Olympic Stadium in the early hours on Monday with his music system turned up full blast to avoid hearing any questions from journalists. He looked very sheepish indeed.

No one seemed to know when or how Zinedine Zidane left. Nor was there any answer to the question asked in hundreds of languages all over the planet: “Why?”

It was 10 minutes from the end of extra time in the final, and a seeming eternity since there had been any goals at all. A beautiful header from Materazzi had put Italy level after 19 minutes, cancelling out Zidane’s early penalty for France.

With just about everyone’s attention diverted to play at the far end there was some routine verbiage between the two players. Zidane was walking away, when Materazzi had insisted on a final few syllables. They must have been very insulting, although Materazzi has denied reports that they were “dirty terrorist”.

Whatever – calmly, deliberately, the Muslim Zidane turned, walked back and headbutted him: a common enough piece of low-grade violence in a dimly lit alley, here providing us the greatest water-cooler talking-point in history. No single event can have previously been seen by so many and provoked so much discussion.

Hardly anyone noticed it live, except – so Fifa claimed – the fourth official, Luis Medina Cantalejo of Spain, who, they insisted, had not needed video evidence (a grey area of his jurisdiction). Diverting himself from such mundane duties as counting injury time, he told the linesman, who alerted the referee – Horacio Elizondo of Argentina, the man who had sent off Wayne Rooney. For once, there can be no complaint, even from France.

This was Zidane’s last match before retirement. He could have ended his career lifting the World Cup. He should have done, because France were the more imaginative and ambitious team. Instead, it was Fabien Barthez wearing the captain’s armband when the French shuffled up to collect their losers’ medals.

Zidane, perhaps the greatest player of the past decade, was already destined to win the Golden Ball as player of the tournament (decided by journalists’ votes, which were cast before the final). Even so, he leaves his sport amid ignominy without precedent. In time, this incident will take its place in a reasoned assessment of his remarkable career. But it will take time.

Perhaps there were indications from the start that Zidane was in a funny mood. His seventh-minute penalty into the top corner was audacious on some reckonings. Stupid and dangerous would have been an alternative description. There is no need to be audacious with penalties: you have to be certain – and Zidane came perilously close to missing.

After Italy quickly hit back, the game retreated from its skittish youth into a rather arid middle age. World Cup finals are rarely classics: the stakes are too high. It would be wrong to say Italy were playing for penalties – coach Marcello Lippi would have held back his substitutions were that true. But they were content to play with the systematic calm that served them throughout; as the game went on, an increasing quantity of the excitement came from French individualism. Until the moment that was decidedly over-exciting and individualistic.

Raymond Domenech, the French coach who has the air of an MIT nuclear scientist but perhaps not quite the brainpower, claimed Zidane being sent off was “the key element” in his team’s defeat. This implies that France, who had not scored for the 103 previous minutes before Zidane’s exit, were certain to score in the next 10 had they only had their full team.

Italy, in the penalty shoot-out, as with Materazzi’s incitement to violence and so much else, seemed to know precisely what they were doing. Despite France’s late surge to the final, Italy – alone in the tournament – had from the start the methodical approach that wins World Cups, and the team to support it. To that extent, they were deserved winners.

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