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Friday, July 14, 2006
Updated: July 17, 11:22 AM ET
Sticks and stones, Zidane

By Skip Bayless
Page 2

Zinedine Zidane said his only regret was that so many children witnessed what he did.

But that should be the least of his worries. No, the Head Butter taught children 'round the world a shocking and invaluable lesson.

He continued doing so during his first interview since the international incident, once more flashing the misguided pride that ruined the end of an all-time great career -- and probably lost the World Cup for France.

Zinedine Zidane bust
An image soccer fans won't soon forget.
Zidane qualified his apology with: "But I can't regret what I did because it would mean he was right to say all that."

Wrong, wrong, oh so wrong.

For a week now, speculation has run amok over what exactly Italy's Marco Materazzi said to Zidane during overtime of the World Cup Final that prompted him to turn and crumple the unsuspecting Materazzi by catching him flush in the chest with the top of his bald head, thrown like a fist.

The retaliation seemed all the more savage because -- at least for Americans -- you just don't see a man smash another man that hard with his head unless they're both wearing helmets and pads. Thank God he didn't aim at Materazzi's face. Materazzi was able to play on. Zidane, of course, was ejected.

And Materazzi's team won the World Cup on penalty kicks.

So, as Zidane ducked reporters, a breathless World Cup media throng interviewed everyone from his family members to lip readers to find out What Materazzi Said. Better question: Did It Matter?

Really, that's the deep-down question any athlete of any color or nationality or culture or faith must ask himself or herself: Is there anything an opponent can say during competition that justifies immediate physical retaliation?

The answer is NO.

A racial slur? NO.

An ethnic slur? NO.

An ancestral slur? NO.

A sexual slur? NO.

The most vile, reprehensible remark about your mother? NO.

Your sister? NO.

Your wife or girlfriend? NO.

There should be nothing an opponent can say to you that triggers that kind of lose-your-head, lose-your-game reaction.

All together now, children: Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you. At least, not the words that are aimed at you during competition and are intended to accomplish only this: destroying your focus and shattering your cool.

We Americans have the perfect name for it: trash talk. It's as worthless as the garbage your mom makes you take out.

Yet trash talk helped Marco Materazzi and Italy win the biggest game of the world's biggest sports event and wreck a superstar's legacy. From here on, when you think of Zidane, you'll think of the Head Butt, whether you're American or French.

Shockingly sad.

Zidane says Materazzi insulted his mother and sister. SO WHAT? Lip-readers had Materazzi calling Zidane a "dirty terrorist" and his mother a "terrorist whore" and saying he hoped Zidane's family dies an ugly death. WHO CARES?

Marco Didn't-Mater-azzi.

Did Zidane look up to or respect this guy? No, he was no more than a substitute for Italy until Alessandro Nesta got hurt -- no more than a 32-year-old defender known for playing rough and, occasionally, dirty. Zidane should have been prepared for precisely the kind of tactics to which Materazzi stooped.

He had almost no chance of stopping Zidane with his talent. In fact, moments earlier, Zidane's legal header had very nearly won the Cup for France. The Italians were clearly gassed, desperately hanging on for penalty kicks -- the goalie guessing game that decides soccer ties.

 Zinedine Zidane bust
Zidane will still be remembered as a great player, but his legacy will be tarnished by his last game.
Zinedine Zidane was the greatest player on the pitch and in the tournament. Coming out of retirement to lead France to a second international championship was about to elevate his bronzed bust alongside those of futbol gods Pele and Maradona. What a story this was about to be, before Zidane's strength turned into his weakness.

What made Zidane great was his talent and his toughness -- street toughness in a sport populated by guys who need stretchers for bruises. Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, grew up on the poor side of Marseille. On those mean streets, he was as quick-tempered proud as he was gifted with his feet and vision. He could control a soccer ball, but not always his emotions. French bullies who made fun of his heritage or his family got what Materazzi got.

That, you can understand.

But as he rose through the soccer ranks, he wasn't always able to channel that rage into dominating games. He could be a hothead who played with a chip on his shoulder.

He's a chip off his mother's block.

As a London publication reported, she says she wants Materazzi's "[testicles] on a platter."

Yes, blame the Italian for your son's shame.

This would be like Michael Jordan, in his final game as a Chicago Bull -- Game 6 at Utah -- finally letting Bryon Russell get under his skin. And instead of stealing the ball from Karl Malone and dribbling to the far free throw line and hitting the game-winner over Russell, Jordan turns and decks him and gets thrown out.

This would be like Michael's mother saying she wants Russell's you-know-whats on a platter.

Zidane was lucky he didn't play our football, in the NFL. Nearly every play, some player is saying something about yo' momma.

Yes, just before the head butt, Materazzi reached from behind Zidane and appeared to pinch his nipple. SO WHAT? The biggest star cannot retaliate, other than to turn to the nearest ref and say, "Didn't you see that?"

Spitting, biting, kneeing below the belt -- you cannot immediately respond with your fists or your head, especially if you're a superstar.

After the game? NO. You want an assault charge? A highly publicized trial? Not worth it, especially for some Materazzi.

Yet Zidane still appears content that he defended his manhood, his family name and his Algerian heritage. The cost: international disgrace.

You know why Zidane wouldn't say exactly what Materazzi said? Because, 10 days later, repeated on national TV, whatever was said just wouldn't seem like that big a deal.

Not after France lost the Cup.

Deep down, for the rest of his days, Zinedine Zidane will regret that he didn't retaliate the best and only way.

On the scoreboard.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.