Head-butt from 2006 World Cup final left an imprint

Zidane’s hit on Materazzi still recognized 16-plus years later with statue in Qatar.

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Zinedine Zidane (left) received a red card after head-butting Marco Materazzi in the final of the 2006 World Cup, which led to Italy beating France on penalty kicks.

Zinedine Zidane (left) received a red card after head-butting Marco Materazzi in the final of the 2006 World Cup, which led to Italy beating France on penalty kicks.

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LAS VEGAS — Informed that The Times of London, in 2007, had rated him among its 50 hardest, toughest, give-no-quarter footballers of all time, Marco “The Matrix” Materazzi pauses.

Materazzi, the paper wrote, “dispenses pain like other Italians dish out linguine con vongole.”

His English is a bit broken. Something gets lost in translation, what sounds like “hungry.” No, he means “angry,” because he finishes by saying, “. . . I’m not the first.”

Materazzi knows of the list. The Times ranked him 45th, not first. He wasn’t pleased — in fact, he was “angry” — that he wasn’t Numero Uno, king of the all-time bruisers? He had hoped to top that chart?

“I am joking.”

Laughter erupts from him, an associate-interpreter, a longtime colleague of mine and me, here in an indoor soccer facility where Materazzi has been conducting youth clinics.

What requires zero interpretation is how the imposing former center-back for the Italian national side dominated the 2006 World Cup final between gli Azzurri and France in Berlin.

On July 9, 2006, the notorious episode unfolded when an exchange of words with French striker Zinedine “Zizou” Zidane incited the 6-1 Zizou to pound his cranium into the chest of the 6-4 Matrix.

Materazzi lay flat on the Olympiastadion pitch as Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo sorted it all out, finally red-carding Zidane to send him packing from his final match as a player 20 minutes into extra time.

It went to penalty kicks, where Materazzi nailed the second in Italy’s 5-3 edge that earned it its fourth World Cup triumph.

“I got my World Cup. That is what’s important for me. The rest is bulls—t.”

COUP DE TÊTE

The head-butt is unforgettable. However, 16-plus years later, as the latest World Cup unfolds in Qatar, most don’t recall Materazzi’s vast imprint on that epic match.

In the seventh minute, his foul on Florent Malouda in the box resulted in a penalty kick for France, which Zizou executed to give France a 1-0 lead.

Twelve minutes later, the Matrix pounded in a header, off Andrea Pirlo’s corner kick, to equalize. It bled into extra time, where both players authored the infamous scene.

Italian manager Marcello Lippi advised the Matrix to tighten the screws even more on Zidane after his goal, and Materazzi tugged at Zizou’s uniform on occasion.

Action near Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon had dissipated. The ball and many players flowed to the other end of the pitch when Zidane jogged past a walking Materazzi.

“You want my jersey,” Zidane said. “I’ll give it to you afterward.” Materazzi said he’d rather have Zinedine’s sister. (He’d claim that he didn’t even know Zidane had a female sibling, Lila.)

Zizou pirouetted and rammed the crown of his noggin into Materazzi’s chest.

Materazzi told FourFourTwo magazine that much stronger vulgarities are uttered every day on the streets of Naples, Milan and Paris. “What I said was stupid, but it didn’t deserve that reaction.”

A few years later, outside a Milan hotel, where Materazzi had traveled to meet with Real Madrid coach José Mourinho, Materazzi saw Zidane, approached him and shook his hand.

Zidane, who had vowed to never apologize to Materazzi, would say he hadn’t recognized the person whose hand he shook.

In Qatar, the dramatics are frozen — a fraction of a second after contact, Materazzi falling back, Zidane arched forward, right fist clenched — in a 16-foot-tall bronze statue, sculpted by the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed.

He called it “Coup de Tête,” meaning head-butt. Nine years ago, it stood on a Doha corniche until a public backlash fueled its export to Paris.

However, for an undisclosed sum, Qatar Museums purchased it as a centerpiece, in time for this World Cup, for its new 3-2-1 Museum.

Its chief said it harkens Greek mythology, but footballers aren’t gods, “they’re just human beings.” He called the French-Algerian Zidane a friend of Qatar and a role model for the Arab world.

LA PASSIONE

Materazzi glances at a tiny girl, pink trim on her shirt and shoes, on the indoor pitch and says she is fantastic. Fast. A quick learner. He helps kids foster a passion for the sport, making these clinics a joy to the man who turns 50 in August.

“I try to have them trust me, to give them the passion. That passion was important for me to accomplish big goals in my life and career.”

Regarding Qatar 22, he says a Brazil-Argentina semifinal would be thrilling, and he includes France as a probable victor.

For the Azzurri, failing to qualify for Qatar and Russia 2018 were national embarrassments.

Italy did win Euro 2020 (played in the summer of 2021), on penalty kicks over England, but it was a sliver of Continental solace to a country accustomed to global relevance.

The last remnant of that grizzled defense, employed by Materazzi and Gennaro Gattuso, and carried out by defender Giorgio Chiellini in London, evaporated when Chiellini retired.

Might the Azzurri be softer without such influence?

“Maybe now,” Materazzi says, “without one Chiellini, one Gattuso, one Materazzi . . . we will see.”

He has his coaching licenses. A few years in India started that chapter, and he seems to seek more experience. If he were to ever coach his beloved Azzurri, would it be a hard squad?

“I think so.”

There is no pause. He retains locked-on eye contact.

Marco Materazzi is not joking.

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