BERLIN – The beautiful game turned vicious, even venomous Sunday.
It was all still beautiful to Italy .
Explanations were nonexistent for Zidane's action in the 110th minute of his farewell game. He was walking upfield near defender Marco Materazzi when, in his final act for his national team, he bashed his shaven head into Materazzi's chest.
"I have not seen the replays, but if it's voluntary then there's nothing you can say," France coach Raymond Domenech said. "But it's a shame. It's sad. He (Materazzi) did a lot of acting and for such a big man, a gust of wind made him fall over."
Not quite. Zidane, who is retiring, might have been provoked, but he definitely knocked over Materazzi.
"It's regrettable. We regret it, he regrets it," Domenech said.
Without their leader, the French still had their chance in the shootout. But the Italians, never masters of the penalty kick, made all five, setting off an hour of hugging, dancing and fist-pumping celebrations.
"This squad showed great heart," Gennaro Gattuso said. "Maybe it wasn't pretty, but we were hard to beat."
They were impossible to beat and gave up only one goal actually scored by an opponent. And no, it was not pretty.
Outplayed for an hour and into extra time, the Italians won it after Zidane committed the ugliest act of a tournament that set records for yellow and red cards, diving and, at times, outright brutality.
Asked if French soccer would miss Zidane, Domenech said:
"Yes, well, he was missed in the last 20 minutes tonight. It weighed heavily in the outcome."
Without their leader for the shootout, the French only missed once. But Italy was perfect. Fabio Grosso clinched the Azzurri's fourth championship, and his teammates had to chase him halfway across the pitch to celebrate.
"It's incredibly emotional. Words can hardly describe it," Grosso said. "Maybe we still don't realize what we have achieved. We really wanted to win and in the end we made it."
Only Brazil has more World Cups, five.
Until now, no team since the last Azzurri champions in 1982 had to endure the stress and anguish of a soccer scandal. Rather than be disrupted by the current probe ripping apart the national sport back home, the Italians survived.
"If the scandal hadn't happened I think we wouldn't have won the World Cup," Gattuso said. "It has given us more strength."
Verdicts in the match-fixing trial that could relegate four teams — and 13 of Italy's 23 players — to lower divisions are expected next week.
France underwent a renaissance of its own in the last month. The French, racked by dissension, nearly went out in the first round for the second straight World Cup, and then Zidane turned them around. They controlled the flow of play Sunday, only to fail to finish through 120 minutes.
Their only goal, Zidane's penalty kick in the seventh minute, was the lone score by an Italy opponent in seven games.
But the Italians put the ball into the net 12 minutes later on Materazzi's header off a corner kick. And then they held on in a game marked by sloppiness and maliciousness.
Rarely did Italy threaten over the final 75 minutes. But the Azzurri ignored recent history — they lost a quarterfinal shootout to France in 1998, when Les Bleus went on to their only championship.
Andrea Pirlo, Materazzi, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Del Piero all easily beat France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez in the shootout. The difference was the miss by rarely used David Trezeguet, which hit the crossbar on France's second attempt.
When Grosso connected with his left foot, the sliver of Italian fans in the opposite corner of Olympic Stadium finally could let out their breath — and screams of victory.
"We had fear of the penalties," said Gattuso, aware that Italy lost the only other final decided in a shootout, to Brazil in 1994. "Our history was not great, so that was the fear."
On the trophy stand, amid hugs and slaps on the back, Materazzi placed a red, white and green top hat on the World Cup Trophy. Captain Fabio Cannavaro then held it high as cameras flashed everywhere. An impromptu Tarantella by the players followed as silver confetti fluttered around them.
It was, by far, the prettiest sight of the night.
"I've won many championships," coach Marcello Lippi said, "but a joy so big I have never felt."
With a 25-game unbeaten streak dating back nearly two years, the Italians added this title to their championships in 1934, 1938 and '82 — when another match-fixing investigation plagued Serie A.
The hero then in Spain was striker Paolo Rossi, fresh off a two-year suspension for his role in match-fixing. This time, there were a dozen stars and a coach who seemed to make all the right moves.
Italy won its first-round group over the higher-ranked United States and Czech Republic, and Ghana. Then it beat Australia on a controversial penalty in the second-half extra time that Francesco Totti converted.
It routed Ukraine 3-0 before depressing the host nation with two stunning goals in the final minutes of extra time for a semifinal win over Germany.
Gianluigi Buffon made the save of the final match in the 104th minute as the ever-dangerous Zidane fed Willy Sagnol on the wing and then slipped into the area. Sagnol's cross was headed into the top of the net with the Italian keeper soared high to knock it over.
By then, the sea of blue supporters for both teams seemed as exhausted as the players. The crowd let out a short gasp, and then it was back to the tense and tentative action.
Zidane used his head again in the 110th, albeit the wrong way, and almost got away it. Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo didn't see the butt, and Buffon charged out of his net imploring Elizondo to seek help.
The ref finally asked his assistant on the sideline, then pulled out the red card.
For the remaining extra time, the fans whistled their displeasure.
"We prepared exactly how we needed to be at the top. You could see that in the second half and in extra time," Domenech said. "Once again we were largely superior to our opponents."
Both sides played nervous, sloppy soccer for 120 minutes, hardly befitting a World Cup final. There were far more mistakes than inspiration.
France's Thierry Henry went down in the first minute in a seemingly innocent collision with the impregnable Cannavaro. Henry stayed on the ground, clearly dazed, for two minutes before being helped off with an ice bag held to his head.
The striker soon came back and his first touch, naturally, was a header. It was a terrific one, too, falling at the feet of a breaking Florent Malouda.
Malouda stumbled — many might say dived — in the penalty area and Elizondo immediately signaled a penalty kick.
Zidane, whose penalty beat Portugal in the semifinals, lobbed it right as Buffon dived the other way. The ball struck the crossbar and fell 2 feet inside the net in the seventh minute.
For the rest of the half, the French showed little of the flair that carried them this far. And Italy tied it with one of its strengths: a set piece.
Mauro Camoranesi won a corner kick on right wing and was setting up to take it when Andrea Pirlo signaled Camoranesi to back off. Pirlo took the corner, a perfect spiral that found the head of defender Materazzi above France's Patrick Vieira.
Materazzi's header soared past goalkeeper Fabien Barthez to tie it.
Luca Toni hit the crossbar off another corner kick in the 36th.
Henry had the best opportunity in the second half, but Buffon lunged left to hand-save his right-footed drive. France got a scare, too, when Zidane fell on his right arm and shoulder and needed freeze spray applied before staying in.