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The Potshot Seen Round the World
December 25, 2006
From the World Cup to the Olympics, sports fans thrilled to a fateful headbutt, a refusal to fade away, a gracious response to adversity, a moving rescue and two courageous returns from injury
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December 25, 2006

The Potshot Seen Round The World

From the World Cup to the Olympics, sports fans thrilled to a fateful headbutt, a refusal to fade away, a gracious response to adversity, a moving rescue and two courageous returns from injury

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It will be forever known as the Headbutt. At 10:16 p.m. on July 9, at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, France's Zin�dine Zidane rammed his noggin into the chest of Italy's Marco Materazzi, felling the blue-shirted defender like a redwood. And in one Shakespearean moment of madness on the most visible stage in sports--the World Cup final--the greatest player of his generation ended his career by whipsawing from honor to disgrace, from savior to antihero, from YouTube glorification to YouTube ridicule. (Hundreds of Internet replays, many of them digitally altered, turned the Headbutt into a 21st-century cultural phenomenon.) � Yet by the end of the year Zidane--who is now enjoying a sports icon's comfortable retirement--was more popular than ever. Perhaps that's because the French have always forgiven their public figures' faults. Perhaps it's because sports fans the world over believe that the thuggish Materazzi deserved such rough justice. And perhaps it's because anyone who knows soccer realizes that France never would have been in a position to win the World Cup had Zidane not played so masterfully in the knockout rounds against Spain, Brazil and Portugal.

Ultimately, of course, the incident was just a yo-mama crack gone bad, a classic example of the old definition of history: first tragedy, then farce. Materazzi ended up making an ad for his shoe sponsor spoofing the incident, and FIFA president Sepp Blatter considered inviting the two players to a make-nice summit meeting on Robben Island, off South Africa, the onetime site of Nelson Mandela's imprisonment. The fact that the reunion never happened failed to negate the final lessons: The Headbutt gave sports fans the world over (including plenty of U.S. radio shock jocks) something to talk about, and the sheer number of arguments reminded us exactly why soccer is the most popular pastime on earth. -- Grant Wahl

BOXING

The Party's Not Over

Oscar De La Hoya, whom we left for retired in 2005 (well, on his knees after Bernard Hopkins crumpled him with a shot to the liver), made a little comeback this year, demolishing Ricardo Mayorga in his only fight and setting himself up for a megamatch against Floyd Mayweather Jr. next spring. Ordinarily a fighter who plugs along into his twilight years (Evander, you listening?) doesn't belong on a best-of list, but the 33-year-old De La Hoya's pugilistic persistence is oddly inspirational.

For one thing De La Hoya's got so much going on--promotions, land deals, Spanish-language newspapers, a heartening amount of philanthropy--that boxing is little more than a sideline. He could have eased out of the game with a lot of shine on his Golden Boy image and never looked back. It is, after all, a pretty hard sport.

But De La Hoya has decided that the best way to honor boxing (a notion few of his peers care about) is to keep fighting. No doubt there is vanity involved. But by remaining in the ring, even past his prime, De La Hoya has given us reason to pay attention a little longer, until somebody else (there will be somebody else, right?) comes along.

This isn't a public service, of course--he'll get something like $20 million to keep in shape--but it's an effort he doesn't really need to make. The fact that De La Hoya, the last of boxing's crossover stars, still wants to fight is enough to make us still want to watch. -- Richard Hoffer

NASCAR

The Tao of Little E

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