"Zidane is my hero and I have always admired him a lot."
-- Marco Materazzi
I remember the first time I ever experienced Seinfeld. It is still etched in my memory. I even recall the scene. It was the summer after my junior year of college. I caught the episode The Deal courtesy of my friend Tristan, who was flabbergasted when I announced that I'd never seen the show.
"What is wrong with you?" he kept muttering. "Seriously, what is wrong with you?"
You know the story: It opens with Jerry and Elaine on the couch, using clever wordplay to talk themselves into accepting some sort of friends-with-benefits arrangement.
I was transfixed. I'd never seen anything like that before. As it turned out, neither had anyone else. The dialogue was poetic and brilliant without seeming poetic or brilliant. The slew of shows who owe their existence to the brand of comedy Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld invented is extraordinary: Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, 30 Rock, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Community, How I Met Your Mother... Did I leave something out?
Seinfeld was surreal because it was the first time we had seen that on a television set.
There's been only one truly surreal sports moment this century, only one moment Seinfeldian in its scope.
It wasn't Sergio Aguero's stoppage-time goal to give Manchester City the 2012 Premier League title, or the Tyree catch that ended the New England Patriots' perfect 19-0 hopes, or the Miami Heat's Game 6 comeback to eventually take the 2013 NBA Finals... although those are worthy.
No, none of them come close to the epic Zinedine Zidane breakdown in the 2006 World Cup Final.
Zidane's accomplishments are staggering. He is one of the five greatest players of all time. He won the FIFA World Player of the Year award three times -- in 1998, 2000 and 2003. The only other player to do that? Ronaldo.
He won a UEFA Champion's League title, two Serie A titles and a La Liga title. If that's not enough, in 1998 he dragged France, kicking and screaming, to its only World Cup trophy, somehow besting heavy-favorite Brazil in the final.
He retired from international football in 2004, but when France floundered, he returned again as the conquering hero to save them in 2006. Think Lone Wolf McQuade.
Again, he carried them all the way to the final and a date with the Italians. He even scored on a first-half penalty.
With the game tied 1-1 in overtime and likely headed into a penalty shootout, Zidane decided it would be prudent to slam his head into the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi.
One of the five greatest soccer players in history, on the biggest possible stage sports or otherwise on the planet with more than 2 billion people watching, the most elegant player in the game made the most inexcusably inelegant play in world sports history.
What could Materazzi have possibly said to deserve that?
"It was very personal things about my mama, my sister. I tried not to listen, but he kept repeating the words."
Zidane was sent off and France lost the final on penalties because Materazzi talked some trash about Zidane's mother.
"I can't regret what I did because it would mean that he was right to say all that," said Zidane in an interview a few days later, wearing a jacket draped over his shoulders like a cape. So very French.
France, a country steeped in historical benchmarks, had somehow outdone itself again. The most famous Frenchman since Napoleon had just gotten exiled to his own private Elba, a soccer hell that only someone of Zidane's stature could possibly fathom.
If this was a Seinfeld episode, Materazzi would be Newman to Zidane's Jerry.
There will never be an on-field incident so shockingly perversely bizarre as that one.
The stakes could not have been higher for Zidane. If he had won that game, he would have entered the rarefied air of Pele and Maradona.
Instead, he walked away with nothing but a red card and a statue in the middle of Paris.
There will never be another Seinfeld because it would never survive in a post-Twitter world. There surely will never be another moment as riveting as Zidane's sendoff.
Zidane was the first in a growing line of athletes forced to “explain their actions” to the public. A soccer god lowered himself to our level, thanks to the power of internet vitriol. There’s no longer a moat between them and us. He set the stage for Tiger’s apology for philandering, Armstrong’s for steroids and Dennis Rodman for being Dennis Rodman.
Zidane shouldn’t despair, though, because he gave us the most surreal instant in sports. Imagine how his meltdown would melt social media today?