Marco Materazzi celebrates the Italy's victory following the penalty shootout in the World Cup 2006 final. (Getty Images/AFP/Odd Andersen)
The hulking Italian defender was at the heart of the World Cup's biggest controversy in years
By John Molinaro, CBC Sports
It was a head-butt that would have made Hulk Hogan proud.
With ten minutes left in extra time of the World Cup final, Zinedine Zidane turned to face Marco Materazzi, lowered his head and violently rammed the Italian defender in the chest, knocking him to the ground.
Zinedine's head-butt cost France its best scorer as the countries headed into a penalty shootout to decide the match. With Zizou back in the locker-room, Italy claimed its fourth World Cup title with a 5-3 shootout win over France.
So what exactly did Materazzi, a talented defender who is also considered the bad boy of Italian soccer, say to set off Zidane? Nobody knows for sure but it should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Materazzi's career that the Italian is at the centre of this controversy.
Tall and lanky, bulging with biceps and covered in tattoos, the wide-eyed Italian looks the part of a thug. Materazzi plays in Serie A (the Italian first division) with Inter Milan and is renowned for his physical and aggressive style, his tough tackling skills and for getting his opponents' blood boiling with his intimidating and often dirty play.
After the head-butt, Materazzi is apparently feeling well enough to gesture to his attacker, Zinedine Zidane, as the Frenchman is sent off after receiving a red card. (Getty Images/AFP/John MacDougall)
While Materazzi has earned praise for playing with a lot of grit, critics point out that the towering defender has a propensity for earning red cards and employing underhanded tactics. Little wonder that a collective cheer followed when Zidane floored Materazzi – for many soccer fans, the Italian had it coming for a long time.
Materazzi's rough-and-tumble style comes naturally. He spent the first few years of his pro career in Italy's lower leagues – divisions not exactly known for free-flowing soccer – before signing with Serie B team Perugia in 1995.
He left Italy in 1998 and headed off to the English Premiership when he joined Everton, but the Italian failed to adjust to life in England: he was red-carded three times in just 27 appearances and returned to Perugia after just one season.
It was at this point that Materazzi's career took off. He became a key player for Perugia in his first season back in Italy in 1999-2000, and followed that up by scoring 12 goals the following campaign, setting a Serie A record for goals by a defender in a single season.
His offensive prowess and growing reputation as one of the best defenders in a league noted for its defensive excellence did not escape the attention of Italian oil tycoon Massimo Moratti – the Inter Milan owner paid Perugia 10 million euros to bring the defender to the Italian fashion capital in 2001.
Materazzi was instantly installed in the centre of Inter Milan's defence and he quickly established himself as one of the club's top stars, helping them win back-to-back Italian Cups (2005 and 2006).
Although respected by teammates for his commitment on the field, opposing players have complained of Materazzi's shady tactics – kicking at players' heels, pinching and stamping are part of the Italian defender's arsenal of tricks in marking opponents. In 2004, he was suspended for two months after punching Siena's Bruno Cirillo in a post-match tussle between the two teams.
Used primarily as a substitute by Italy at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, Materazzi stood in for the injured Alessandro Nesta in Germany and played a major role in helping the Azzurri win their fourth World Cup.
In the do-or-die first-round match against the Czech Republic, Materazzi scored on a bullet header a mere nine minutes after replacing Nesta to pace the Italians to a 2-0 triumph. Materazzi was red-carded in Italy's second-round match against Australia but redeemed himself with a polished defensive performance in Italy's semifinal victory against Germany.
In the final against France, Materazzi scored the tying goal in
the first half and then recovered from the Zidane head-butt to score
one of Italy's goals in the shootout, underscoring his value as
one of the best attacking defenders in world soccer.
Born: August 19, 1973 in Lecce, Italy
Teams played for: Perugia, Carpi, Everton (England), Inter Milan
National team debut: Apr. 25, 2001 vs. South Africa
National team stats: two goals in 32 appearances
Major tournaments: 2002 and 2006 World Cup, Euro 2004