PARIS – French soccer star Zinedine Zidane apologized for head-butting an Italian opponent during the World Cup final, saying Wednesday that he was provoked by harsh insults about his mother and sister.
"I apologize, to all the children" who watched the match Sunday, Zidane said in his first, highly awaited comments about the brutal act of violence that marked the end of his career.
The 34-year-old midfielder, soft-spoken and relaxed in the interview with the Canal-Plus television network, did not specify exactly what Italian defender Marco Materazzi said that enraged him, but said it was about his family.
"I would rather have taken a punch in the jaw than have heard that," Zidane said, stressing that Materazzi's language was "very harsh," and that he repeated the insults several times.
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.
The abrupt act of aggression marred the end of the World Cup, with many warning it would tarnish Zidane's formidable legacy.
The France captain said, however, that he felt no regret for his act, "because that would mean (Materazzi) was right to say all that."
"There was a serious provocation," said Zidane, who said he had never had tensions with Materazzi before.
"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."
"I tell myself that if things happened this way, it's because somewhere up there it was decided that way," he said in a later interview on TF1 television. "And I don't regret anything that happened, I accept it."
For days, sports fans around the world have been riveted by the question: What could Materazzi have said to set Zidane off? 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. He denied insulting Zidane's mother.
"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."
Zidane "has always been my hero," Materazzi said. "I admire him a lot."
Despite the head-butt, Zidane was awarded 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.
"The winner of the award is not decided by FIFA, but by an international commission of journalists," Blatter said in Italian newspaper La Repubblica. "That said, FIFA's executive committee has the right, and the duty, to intervene when faced with behavior contrary to the ethics of the sport."
In France, many have already pardoned Zidane, even without his explanation. A poll published Tuesday in Le Parisien newspaper showed that 61 percent of the 802 people questioned forgave Zidane.
Zidane said many people have asked him not to retire, but he said he would not change his mind.
"I won't go back on it, at least I hope so ... (the decision) it's definitive," he said.
In a later interview with TF1 television, Zidane said he was "going to rest, and then move on to something else."