Zidane watched the Berlin sky, not thinking of anything, a white sky flecked with grey clouds lined with blue, one of those windy skies, immense and changing, of the Flemish painters. Zidane watched the Berlin sky over the Olympic Stadium on the evening of 9 July 2006, and felt the sensation, with poignant intensity, of being there, simply there, in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, at this precise moment in time, on the evening of the World Cup Final.

So begins Zidane's Melancholy, a lyrical five-page reflection on Zinédine Zidane's dramatic exit from the 2006 World Cup final by the Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint that explores the emotions and choices that come with football1. Albert Camus's Absurdist philosophy examined the individual attempt to find purpose in a disordered world and Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that, "In football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent" — in this deeply subjective piece, Toussaint freely speculates about the reasons for Zidane's infamous headbutt on the Italian defender Marco Materazzi, casting the French captain as an outsider who suddenly realises his deep disillusion with the world around him.

Zidane's Melancholy is neither an essay nor fiction, nor the 'faction' of David Peace's The Damned Utd (which took considerable creative liberties with Brian Clough's quixotic spell at Leeds). It reads as a microcosm of Toussaint's oeuvre, referencing it and encapsulating some of its key themes, particularly the alienation felt in everyday situations. Toussaint has said that his writing aims to contain "the infinitely small and the infinitely large": focusing on one of its greatest players in its biggest game, he presents football as a series of moments generated — often seamlessly, when little appears to be happening, like the tiny flashpoints in his novels — and given meaning by the narratives of its games and tournaments, as well as the histories ('facticity', as Sartre put it) of its players. The result is a treatise which, although brief, is crammed with thought-provoking ruminations about football, infused with philosophical concepts and interspersed with literary references.

The first idea introduced by Toussaint is the reading of the penalty with which Zidane opened the scoring in the final as a 'quotation'. Describing it as "an indolent panenka shot that hit the crossbar, passed over the line, and re-exited the goal … that flirted with Geoff Hurst's fabled shot at Wembley in 1966", it becomes the work of a postmodern artist recreating one important moment (and, by chance, another) in a new context, recognising that among the things that make football thrilling are moments of originality from a visionary player — and their recreation.

Football has a lexicon of tricks, many synonymous with those who first exhibited them: the Cruyff turn, Pelé's dummy against Uruguay in 1970, Maradona's Hand of God, even the low-rent Blanco Bounce from Mexico's 1998 World Cup campaign. Their reproduction raises the issue of locating the boundaries between conscious reference, coincidental parallels — Lampard's shot against Germany in the 2010 World Cup crossing the line and not being awarded — and pastiche — Keisuke Honda copying Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick preparation at the same tournament. (Not to mention that little is as embarrassing as a muffed replication: witness Robert Pirès and Thierry Henry's disastrous 'penalty-pass' for Arsenal against Manchester City in 2005 as they attempted to recreate a similar move properly executed by Johan Cruyff and Jesper Olsen for Ajax.) However brilliant was Zidane's panenka, his 'true act' was yet to come, a result of his inability decisively to end his career and his conflicting weariness with his profession.

Zidane draws his "melancholy" from the symbolic "death" of retirement, heightened as it must come at the end of the World Cup final. The tournament's knockout rounds had been a triumph for Zidane, who had come out of international retirement to rescue a poor qualifying campaign and had then inspired France's second-round win over a highly-fancied Spain. His peerless display in the quarter-final win over Brazil and his winning goal against Portugal in the semi-final suggested that he would retire at the height of his powers, and after his Panenka, it appeared that Zidane might repeat his two-goal final performance of 1998. But when the Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon saved his extra-time header, Zidane realised that he no longer had "the means, or the strength, the energy, the will, to pull off … a final act of pure form." In fact, "form resists him": unable to accept his "irreparable impotence", Zidane resolves to "ruin" his "proper exit, [leaving] prospects open, unknown, alive" with a gesture that will instead "score minds."

Fortunate enough to have been at the Olympiastadion, Toussaint presents the headbutt and its aftermath as a moment of perfect chaos. Happening away from the ball, it was missed by the referee, who only showed Zidane his "black card of melancholy" after being surrounded by Italian players. More importantly, it was unseen by the spectators, and "if one limits oneself to the live observation of events in the stadium, and to the legitimate faith we can have in our senses … [the headbutt] simply never happened."

The headbutt remains an enigma, as Zidane's explanations were never satisfactory. Its creative possibilities spring from this, and the complexities surrounding the act itself, which lie "beyond the moral categories of good and evil". Football's main ethical dilemma remains unchanged since the onset of professionalism: how far is it acceptable to bend or break the rules in order to win? Within this dichotomy, sportsmanship is "good", gamesmanship "bad", but sport's partisanship has meant that over time, the final result has often become more important than the manner of its achievement. 

But, as Camus said, "Maybe the ends will justify the means — but what will justify the ends?" The 2006 World Cup demonstrated that the means and ends did not just affect each team striving to win: with all sides guilty of antagonising opponents or deceiving officials, the tournament itself became deeply unedifying, epitomised by the ugly spectacle of the systematically dishonest Portugal's clash with the brutal Dutch. At its conclusion there came together teams traditionally at opposite ends of this moral spectrum: France, who gave the world the Olympian ideal of international sporting competition, and Italy, noted more than any other nation in football history for using any means in the pursuit of victory.

According to football's laws, Zidane's headbutt had to be punished with expulsion. However, it differed from the World Cup's other illegal acts in that it did not aim for an advantage: rather, it reacted against the sport's value system. The only honest gesture of a tournament characterised by cheating, it forced Fifa to punish not just Zidane (effectively beyond retribution) but also Materazzi, who had taunted him. Zidane's team lost — he later said that it would have been difficult for France to win after his act — but he had struck a crucial blow against gamesmanship.

Besides questioning the game's moral code, Toussaint invites readers to investigate their relationships with its players, and why certain individuals become their favourites. Often, reasons for such identification stretch far beyond the pitch: besides his brilliance, Zidane's significance was closely tied to his Franco-Algerian background. In 1998, as the Front Nationale leader Jean-Marie Le Pen tried to make capital by stirring racial tension, Zidane led the Black, Blanc, Beur team to World Cup glory, making him a hero across France and to its dual nationality and ethnic populations in particular. After the 2005 race riots, his World Cup heroics further raised his stock among France's Arab community, many of whom identified with Zidane's violent response to extreme provocation. 

Zidane claimed no interest in politics: it was his World Cup teammate Lilian Thuram who assumed the role of anti-Fascist spokesman2. Nor did he have much to say about football's aesthetics (unlike, for example, Johan Cruyff). Despite this, Zidane captured artists, more than any other footballer of his generation. Toussaint's piece followed Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parrano's film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, which tracked him through a Real Madrid game, with limited (and largely unrevealing) commentary on what went through his mind while playing. This quietude on key issues allowed Toussaint to open by asserting that Zidane was "not thinking of anything", before filling this void with his own reflections, tying himself and Zidane together as outsiders in the existential tradition. He was not alone in doing so3.

Footballers exist within teams, but ultimately they remain alone (as Gordon and Parrano's film and Toussaint's writing used Zidane to show), constantly making choices in split seconds, to be judged by audiences often of millions. While few of us will ever face the same pressures as the France captain, we all develop moral codes according to our situations and feelings, act upon them as sincerely as possible and then face consequences: as Toussaint writes, "Zidane's melancholy is my melancholy. I know it, I've nourished it and I feel it." Placing himself within Zidane, rather than merely observing him, Toussaint closes the gap between spectator and sportsman, developing a whole new perspective on football — and ruthlessly exposes the limits of our search for meaning within it.