BERLIN, July 10 — While Italy welcomed home its triumphant World Cup champions on Monday, France awaited a full explanation of why its national team captain, Zinédine Zidane, head-butted an opponent in the chest and was ejected from Sunday’s championship match here.
Zidane has yet to say anything publicly about the incident. But family members, in telephone interviews, said they believed the Italian defender Marco Materazzi had called Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, a terrorist.
“We think he either called him a terrorist or a son of Harkis,’’ said Mokhtar Haddad, one of Zidane’s cousins, who studied the pivotal scene on a big screen with friends and family in their home village, Aguemoune, 160 miles east of Algiers.
The Harkis reference is a term for Algerians who fought on the French side in Algeria’s war for independence, and it is a severe insult for someone with Zidane’s heritage.
“The insult went in that direction,’’ said Djamel Zidane, Zinédine’s brother, adding that Zidane was expected to call his family in Algeria on Monday evening or Tuesday to tell them exactly what had happened. “Otherwise he would not have reacted that way.’’
An anti-racist organization based in Paris, SOS Racism, issued a statement that said Zidane had apparently been called a “dirty terrorist” by Materazzi in the 109th minute. The group said it based its report on sources it did not name.
Materazzi denied making any such remark, according to the Italian news agency Ansa. “It is absolutely not true,” he was quoted as saying. “I did not call him a terrorist. I’m ignorant. I don’t even know what the word means.”
FIFA offered no explanation of what occurred between Zidane and Materazzi. It has also not made the referee Horacio Elizondo of Argentina available to explain his red-card ejection of Zidane.
On Monday, Zidane was named the top player of the tournament by journalists covering the World Cup. He received 2,012 votes for the Golden Ball award, beating out the Italian defender Fabio Cannavaro with 1,977. (The New York Times does not participate in the voting for the award.)
In Paris, the response of government officials, the public and the news media to Zidane’s act ranged from support to incredulity to anger. By being ejected, Zidane left France without its best player for the final 10 minutes of overtime and for penalty kicks, which Italy won, 5-3, after overtime ended with the score tied at 1-1. It was the 14th ejection in his professional career, according to The Associated Press.
“Zizou is someone who reacts to things,” Aimé Jacquet, the coach of the French team in 1998, told reporters, using Zidane’s nickname. “Unfortunately he could not control himself. It’s terrible to see him leave this way.”
Jean-François Lamour, France’s sports minister, said in a television interview in Paris that he could imagine that Zidane was provoked. Still, he called the conduct “unpardonable.”
While Italy’s players celebrated with an estimated 500,000 fans at Rome’s Circus Maximus, home of chariot racing in ancient times, France’s team ate lunch in Paris with President Jacques Chirac.
Chirac called Zidane a virtuoso and a soccer genius. “You are also a man of heart, commitment, conviction,” Chirac said, according to The Associated Press. “That’s why France admires and loves you.”
At the same time, Chirac acknowledged that this was a difficult moment in a splendid career that ended in ignominy on Sunday.
Many consider Zidane the greatest soccer player of the past 20 years. France’s victory at the 1998 World Cup, with Zidane leading the way on home soil, became a proclamation for multiculturalism. He is an iconic figure, perceived as representing family values, discretion, civility and hard work. But Zidane is also a complicated man whose temper has caused him trouble before on the field.
Now his final act as a professional, the head-butting of Materazzi, is sure to undercut his reputation.
Marie-George Buffet, a former French sports minister, said in a radio interview in Paris, “We can’t excuse this gesture.”
The French sports newspaper L’Équipe posted a front-page headline that said “Eternal Regrets.”
In an editorial, the paper posed the same question that millions asked of Zidane: Why?
Another of the unanswered questions from the World Cup is who will coach the United States when it tries to qualify for the 2010 tournament in South Africa. Bruce Arena, who coached the Americans to the quarterfinals in 2002 and to a tepid first-round exit in this Cup, said he was scheduled to meet this week with Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation. Arena is expected to say he wants to continue as coach.
Reached at his home in Northern Virginia, Arena would not comment beyond saying he would meet with Gulati.
Another possibility to coach the American team is Jürgen Klinsmann, the now widely hailed German coach who lives in Southern California. But German soccer officials said they planned to do whatever it took to persuade Klinsmann to remain Germany’s coach through the 2008 European Championships.