BY LORENZO MALATERRA
“Nowadays, football is more and more an industry, less and less a game”.
This phrase, written on the main page of Zdenek Zeman’s own website is a perfect synthesis of the thought of the Czech coach: football is not money, nor is it marketing.
As something of a cult figure, Zeman remains one of Italian football’s most iconic coaches, renowned over the last 30 years for his attacking tactics, his extremely hard training regimes and his ability to recognise and nurture numerous young talents: current PSG star midfielder Marco Verratti is one of them.
Two weeks ago, Zeman’s current club Pescara defeated Genoa 5-0: their first victory in 24 games.
Zeman only started training with the players three days before the match after being appointed by Pescara’s President Daniele Sebastiani, in the wake of the sacking of 2006 World Cup winner and architect of Pescara’s promotion from Serie B the previous season, Massimo Oddo.
It is too optimistic to think that Pescara can avoid relegation this year, given their miserable haul of just 12 points in the league, but Zeman has fashioned miracles before and he does not like easy jobs.
Born in Prague in 1947, he missed the horrors of World War 2, but the bellicose fumes of the Cold War convinced him to flee Czechoslovakia when Russian tanks invaded his homeland, deciding to settle in Italy, following his uncle Cestmir Vycpàlek – a former player for Juventus and Palermo and winner of two Scudetti as head coach of Juve.
Zeman resided in Sicily where he met his future wife and started his coaching career.
His first big opportunity came with Parma (then playing in Serie B) in 1987, but the season where football fans began to understand that something completely new was coming to the stage was 1989, when Zeman was reappointed as coach of Foggia, a small southern city on the shores of the Adriatic.
In the nation of catenaccio, counter-attack and tough defenders, Zeman decided to employ an extremely aggressive calcio style based on a high-tempo 4-3-3 formation, offside tactics and frenzied movements of players and ball; something never seen before, at least in Italy’s lower divisions.
At Foggia, Zeman’s recipe of a mix of talented unknown and committed players caught Italian football off-guard and in just three years they managed to climb up to Serie A from the third division, battling with the same attacking verve throughout the whole exciting three years Foggia played in the Italian top flight.
From that team emerged new stars like Giuseppe Signori, (295 goals for clubs and the national team) and interesting foreigners such as the Russian duo Igor Shalimov and Igor Kolivanov, who shined under the Bohemian’s years.
In the 1991-1992 Serie A season, Zeman’s Foggia stayed loyal to its attacking nature: 58 goals scored, the second best attack in the league after Fabio Capello’s powerful AC Milan.
However, Foggia’s attacking mindset was a double-edged sword: the team had the third worst defence.
After that exhilarating experience in Puglia, Zeman was hired by Lazio, bringing the Biancocelesti to excellent second and third place finishes in the following two years. At Lazio, Zeman is credited with having launched the career of Alessandro Nesta, one of Italy’s greats of the modern era.
In 1997, Zeman moved to the other side of the Eternal City, coaching Roma until 1999: these were the years of Francesco Totti at his very best, now its undisputed leader and talisman. Under the relentless 4-3-3 of Zeman, the genius of Totti was most evident and the result was a fourth and a fifth place in the following seasons, bringing some outstanding football with it.
Zeman’s attitude was to attack all-round, both on and off the pitch; in July 1998, after his fourth place with Roma, during an interview the Bohemian openly aired allegations about the widespread use of doping in football, citing well known Juventus players such as Alex Del Piero, Gianluca Vialli and Ciro Ferrara, accusing Italian National Football Federation (Federcalcio) of not paying enough attention and ignoring the issue.
Football walls came down.
At least in Italy.
Juventus rejected any allegations but the Courts, after several trials, sentenced sport doctor Riccardo Agricola to 22 months in prison (he was later absolved by the Court of Appeal), after being found guilty of doping offences, while managing director Antonio Giraudo was acquitted.
After the dust settled, Zeman was perceived as something of a troublemaker in the calcio panorama: Italian clubs became less eager to hire him and in 2000 he moved to Turkey to coach Fenerbahce, with poor results.
Likely marked by this act of “rebellion” against the football elite, Zdenek Zeman started wandering around the lower divisions until June 2012 when he returned as coach of Roma in Serie A.
Only two months before, in April of that same year, the High Court of Justice of CONI (Italian National Olympic Committee, responsible for all sports activity in Italy) confirmed the sentence of expulsion for Antonio Giraudo and Luciano Moggi, Juventus’ most senior directors, after years of trials related to match-fixing scandal, the so-called calciopoli.
With his 70th birthday on the horizon, Zdenek Zeman is still pursuing his football beliefs, rowing against the tide of catenaccio, trying to save desperate Pescara from relegation.
He continues to enjoy the path of most resistance.
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