When Enzo Francescoli sat down with his sons Bruno and Marco at his Miami home to watch the Final of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, he did so hoping to see Zinedine Zidane, a player he called “France’s Maradona of 86”, lift the Trophy. But when the images came through of Zizou headbutting Marco Materazzi and sending the Italian defender flying backwards, he could barely contain his sense of shock, exclaiming: “What madness! So stupid!”

“It was pretty intense. They were part of his make-up, those two minutes,” said Francescoli, looking back on the incident with FIFA.com. “I felt very sorry for him. If he hadn’t had that rush of blood to the head, he would have had a much bigger place in the history of the game. He already has a place but he would have been a much more important figure because France would have become world champions, and it would have been the most spectacular farewell ever.”  

The magical skills of the France No10 were not the only reason the Uruguayan great tuned in to watch Italy take on Les Bleus in a fixture that would not interest him today: “I’d seen Zidane lots of times and I’d gone to meet Enzo. We were friends with him because of all that.”

“All that” is the relationship between the two players, which goes back to 1989. It was not until 1996, however, in the lead-up to the Intercontinental Cup match between Juventus and River Plate – a game in which Zidane and Francescoli were on opposing sides – that the Frenchman revealed that he had named his eldest son Enzo in honour of the opposing No9, an idol of his since the Uruguayan’s days at Marseille.

“To have someone like that, who was a huge figure in the game, tell you that he went to watch you every afternoon, and that you used to do this and say that… well, it gave me a huge lift,” said Francescoli. Zizou’s admiration for El Príncipe was such that whenever he was away with the national team he slept in the shirt the River star had given him. “His wife said he sometimes slept with the shirt on at home,” he added with a mix of incredulity and pride. “Footballers are crazy,” he concluded.

A headstrong idol
Zidane saw the Uruguayan as a footballing god, a status that Francescoli said made him blush a little. The Frenchman even made this admission on one occasion: “I was so obsessed with him that I studied all his moves, everything he did. I did all I could to play like him." Zidane copied him and surpassed him in many aspects, including some of the darker arts of the game, as those few seconds of blind rage in the Germany 2006 Final showed.

“We all have a moment of madness in our lives,” acknowledged Francescoli. “I did a headbutt in the 1987 Copa America final against Chile and was rightly sent off by the Brazilian Arppi Filho. In a game a while before that (Fernando) Astengo had kicked me, and I had torn a muscle. I was a bit wound-up about that.

“Astengo didn’t even kick me [in the final]. He got (Antonio) Alzamendi. But he shoved his face right into mine, like this (Francescoli pulls a face) and I aimed a headbutt at him. I didn’t even touch him, but down he went. I felt like killing myself. I wouldn’t have minded if it had happened in an ordinary game, but not in a final. If you get sent off in an ordinary match, you can accept it, but when it happens in games like that…”

When Francescoli saw Zidane do the same thing at the Olympiastadion in Berlin his heart sank. Certain that France would have won the world title had it not been for that headbutt, he said: “Yes, they lost on penalties, and that could have happened with or without Zidane on the pitch, but I think he made such a difference to France that he was like (Diego) Maradona in 86.

“Things like that can affect you and the team as a whole. Zizou losing it like that maybe didn’t make much of a difference to the game, because it came at the end of extra-time, but it can prey on your mind. So when I saw it, it knocked me back a bit.”

Francescoli’s sense of sadness is all the more intense because he felt Zidane was on top form that day, as he had shown in converting the penalty that gave France an early 1-0 lead. “It didn’t surprise me to see him chip it,” recalled the Uruguayan. “He and (Gianluigi) Buffon knew each other inside out, and he was always going to try something different. If anything, he got under it a little too much, but he had the luck that would desert him later in the game.”