By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer in Berlin
Zinedine Zidane has written glorious chapters in football's recent history - how sad that he should save the most shameful episode for the final page of his story.
It was not meant to end like this
The script was set up for arguably the finest player of his generation to finish his France career with a second World Cup win before closing the book.
And with an early penalty to give France the lead, and increasing influence over tiring Italy, everything was in place for the perfect finale.
Zidane then chose to cast a giant shadow over his reputation and career with a senseless headbutt to the chest of Italy defender Marco Materazzi, who equalised his early spot-kick, in extra-time.
Confusion reigned as Materazzi lay prone, but the fourth official saw the assault and to the disbelief of all inside Berlin's Olympic Stadium, Zidane was shown the red card.
It was a calamity on all levels for Zidane and France as Italy went on to win 5-3 on penalties.
And whatever words or actions of provocation Materazzi may have offered Zidane, his reaction was simply inexcusable.
Raymond Domenech's team had already lost Patrick Vieira with a hamstring injury, so they could ill-afford to lose Zidane under any circumstances, let alone after a piece of violence he will struggle to ever justify.
France lost a talisman, a leader and a man who may have won them the World Cup - and they even lost their most reliable penalty taker in the shoot-out won by Italy's perfect five.
So, Zidane was even denied the scant consolation of going up to say his farewells on the podium with his France colleagues, staying out of sight in shame.
It was the most inglorious end to a glorious Zidane story.
The replay of Zidane's attack on Materazzi was not shown on the giant screens inside the stadium, leaving France fans to harbour a misplaced sense of injustice for their hero.
Zidane's career ends in shame as he head-butts Materazzi
Italy took advantage to claim victory in a final that was entertaining but not a classic, and which may now be remembered more for a moment of madness from an iconic figure that will scar his career.
Zidane had earlier shown his other side, his confidence and genius, by chipping home a penalty via the bar after Materazzi was adjudged to have fouled Florent Malouda.
The former Everton defender headed an equaliser to set the platform for a period of Italian supremacy.
But France's ageing legs were powered forward by moments of Thierry Henry inspiration after the break, despite the loss of Vieira from midfield.
Italy survived and were faultless from the spot, whereas David Trezeguet's strike against the bar sealed France's fate.
As Italy's World Cup winners celebrated with the trophy in front of their fans, a selection of the country's serenades played over the public address system.
Italy coach Marcello Lippi even lit up what looked like a large tree trunk in celebration.
Deep in the bowels of this vast arena, a different tale was unfolding in the France dressing room.
Zidane, the leader of this side who had confounded early poor form to reach the final, was presumably offering his explanations and apologies.
It was not meant to end like this for one of the game's legendary figures - sent from the world's biggest stage in shame and into retirement.