PARIS - The Zinedine Zidane mystery is not quite solved yet.
In his first, highly awaited comments since the World Cup final, the French soccer star only partly explained what caused him to react in fury and head-butt an Italian opponent: repeated harsh insults about his mother and sister.
But Zidane didn’t go into specifics about what Marco Materazzi said. Materazzi swears he never insulted Zidane’s mother. And FIFA is still investigating.
Relaxed and soft-spoken, Zidane repeatedly apologized to fans — especially to children — in several interviews late Wednesday.
“Above all, I’m human,” he said.
The 34-year-old midfielder said he didn’t regret the abrupt, violent outburst Sunday that marked the end of his 18-year professional career.
“I tell myself that if things happened this way, it’s because somewhere up there it was decided that way,” he told TF1 television. “And I don’t regret anything that happened, I accept it.”
Zidane sidestepped questions about exactly what Materazzi said.
“I would rather have taken a punch in the jaw than have heard that,” he told the Canal Plus channel, stressing that Materazzi’s language was “very harsh,” and that he repeated the insults several times.
Most of France accepted Zidane’s apology but not everyone in Europe was so impressed. Italy said Zidane would have done better to stay silent and Spain complained he was more defiant than repentant.
His apology “achieved the pardon that many had already accorded him,” French sports daily L’Equipe wrote Thursday, although it criticized him for not acknowledging the consequences of his act on the final and on his teammates.
“This final became nothing but a regret, before nearly disappearing from debate, an injustice considering the beauty of the collective history of Les Bleus,” it said.
Zidane and Materazzi exchanged words after Italy broke up a French attack in extra time. Seconds later, Zidane lowered his head and rammed Materazzi in the chest, knocking him to the ground.
Zidane was sent off, reducing France to 10 men. Italy went on to win in a penalty shootout with Zidane — an excellent penalty-taker — in the locker room.
The act of aggression marred the end of the World Cup, with many warning it would tarnish Zidane’s formidable legacy. Zidane retired after the tournament, and he said Wednesday his decision was definitive.
The France captain stressed that he felt no regret about his outburst “because that would mean (Materazzi) was right to say all that.”
“My act is not forgivable,” Zidane said. “But they must also punish the true guilty party, and the guilty party is the one who provokes.”
For days, sports fans around the world have been riveted by the question: What could Materazzi have said to set Zidane off in the last few moments of his career? Media from Brazil to Britain hired lip readers to try to figure it out, then came up with different answers.
Materazzi has acknowledged he insulted Zidane, without giving specifics. At nearly the same moment Zidane was on TV, excerpts from an interview that Materazzi gave were posted on an Italian paper’s Web site.
“I didn’t say anything to him about racism, religion or politics,” Materazzi told the Gazzetta dello Sport. “I didn’t talk about his mother, either. I lost my mother when I was 15 and even now I still get emotional talking about her.”
Despite the head-butt, journalists selected Zidane for the Golden Ball award for best player at the World Cup — though FIFA president Sepp Blatter has suggested Zidane could be stripped of the honor.
FIFA opened an inquiry Tuesday into Zidane’s behavior and said Thursday it has opened disciplinary proceedings against Materazzi for his conduct. Zidane’s red card was not unusual: Zidane was sent off 14 times in his career at the club and international level.
Despite his temper, Zidane is better known for his sportsmanship and dancer-like style with the ball. He is a national hero for the French and a symbol of a young, multicultural France. Born to Algerian immigrants, Zidane grew up playing on concrete in an impoverished neighborhood of Marseille.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Former France coach Michel Hidalgo said Zidane was “touching, dignified and human” in the interviews.
“We have made him into a god, we have canonized him, but he’s above all a man, and a man is fragile and breakable,” he told LCI television. “He isn’t Zorro, or the god of soccer.”
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