The Second Coming
Zdenĕk Zeman talks about attacking, romance and his challenge after returning to Roma this season
The Italian singer-songwriter Antonello Venditti once composed a song called Zeman's Conscience that included the line, "Perche' non cambi mai... ["Because you never change…"] For Zdeněk Zeman himself, old habits die hard. During the course of this interview, he smoked, on average, one cigarette every six minutes. We shouldn't be too surprised. He once said, "I don't count how many cigarettes I smoke every day, otherwise I would become nervous and would smoke even more.
At Roma, though, Zeman has changed a habit of a lifetime. Usually he signs contracts for only a year at a time; in the summer, when he moved from Pescara, he agreed a two-year deal with an option for a third. Zeman is back, looking to do what he does best: nurturing young talent and bringing crowds and enthusiasm to cities that previously lacked them. This, at least, is what he did at Foggia and Lecce — in 2004-5, for instance, the giallorossi scored 66 goals, just one fewer than the champions, Juventus — while he has also coached Parma, Lazio and Napoli. Last season, he led Pescara to promotion from Serie B. He is wedded to a 4-3-3 formation and prefers to use young players whose unrelenting energy burns up the pitch and exhausts opponents. No rival team ever runs faster or for longer.
The Czech took the policy of focusing on young players from his uncle Cestmir Vycpalek, his only positive link to Juventus, a club he has repeatedly and publicly criticised, alleging, among other things, systematic drug use in the 1990s. Vycpalek led Juventus to consecutive titles in 1972 and 1973 and was noted for his capacity to develop young talent. Zeman visited Italy in the summers of 1966 and 1967 and, in 1968, he stayed four months because of the Soviet invasion of Prague. He settled in Palermo in 1969 and graduated from the ISEF, the pre-eminent sporting institute. Uncle Cestmir passed on his passion for sport. The young Zeman played ice hockey, volleyball, handball and baseball, before becoming a swimming coach.
In his book Una vita a testa alta The Juventus legend Giampiero Boniperti tells a story about an unexpected meeting. While walking in Prague before a European Cup tie in 1985, a woman recognised Boniperti and took his hand. "Please say hello to Cesto from me. I'm his sister," she said tearfully, before swiftly disappearing into the crowd. That was Zdeněk's mother, Kweta Vycpalek.
Zeman unwittingly helped produce new coaches. Eusebio Di Francesco, who moved to Lecce last summer, is one of the lucky few to have understood his methods. "No one has ever died because of them," is how Zeman defends himself. Aron Winter had a spell as coach at Toronto FC in MLS. Francesco Baiano, now an assistant manager at Siena, shares his views on attacking football. Other players perhaps were just too tired out to follow his footsteps.
Let's start with the present: why did you feel the desire to go back to Roma?
In 1999 I said that eventually I'd come back and this is exactly what happened. And I thank the club for giving me this chance. I read in the papers last summer that I might join the academy, yes. But in fact with all the young talent we have in our first team, I think that we can really entertain people this season. We want to move our fans emotionally. And we'll also try to win, why not?
Is it true that you could have come back before?
It's written in some transcripts from the 2006 investigation but 'somebody' had decided that I could not come back. [In 1998 Zeman accused Luciano Moggi and Juventus of using illegal drugs to enhance performance, leading to a trial that lasted nine years. In return, according to Zeman, Moggi prevented the Czech manager from joining certain teams, deliberately hampering his career. Moggi was subsequently implicated in the Calciopoli scandal that led to Juventus being stripped of two scudetti for influencing referees]
Could you describe your relationship with Luciano Moggi?
I'm happy I've never had any relationship with Moggi, to be honest. Of course I don't regret having said those things in the past. I'm not a pentito. I've been in sports for so long, that I've always felt the duty to defend their spirit and football in particular.
What was so special about Pescara last season?
I chose Pescara because the sea entices me. Besides, they had their golden age 20 years ago and almost 3,000 supporters came to greet me at my first press conference. These things normally don't happen elsewhere. I like their passion and we lived up to the expectations despite bigger clubs like Torino and Sampdoria being clear favourites at the beginning of the season. Expectations were an extra motivation for my players. We developed some good football and brought many people to the Stadio Adriatico to watch us.
In your last season at Foggia, in 2010-11, you regularly fielded 11 Under-21s and had 12 more players coming from the reserve team in your squad, but still could not match the success of your first Foggia, when you entertained thousands, played three consecutive seasons in the top tier and nearly qualified for Europe [Marcelo Lippi's Napoli defeated Lecce on the final day of the season in 1993-94, preventing them from qualifying].
I think that this Foggia played even better than the one in the 1990s. We competed at the same level against more experienced players. They set up better goals and we were as good as the teams that eventually reached the play-offs.
Foggia had the best attack but also the worst defence, which cost them promotion. What went wrong?
We had a better goal difference, though, and we gained 10 points out of 12 against Atletico Roma and Juve Stabia, the play-off finalists. We didn't go up because we blew too many chances at the end of the season.
Although Foggia were not promoted, at least some of your kids went onto better things...
I brought Lorenzo Insigne [on loan from Napoli] and Simone Romagnoli [on loan from AC Milan] with me to Pescara, but if I could I would have taken even more players. Marco Sau, for instance, scored 20 goals last season.
The problem with Foggia was exactly this: you couldn't buy any players, only have them on loan. And then you would have to start everything again every season. In any case, many of those players have the opportunity to play at a higher level; to me that's another achievement. Perhaps it's because I'm getting older, but I feel good with youngsters. I hope I can keep teaching them things for some more time.
Did you develop this ability while at Palermo at the beginning of your career when your uncle Cestmir Vycpalek arranged for you to join the academy of the club?
I was at the Palermo academy for nine years and it was constructive. But not just for me: when I left, 60 youngsters had become professionals during my time there. In my last season, in 1983, six local boys broke into the first team in Serie B and to me that was a great achievement. Back then, only two Palermo-born players were playing with the rosanero: Tanino Troja and Ignazio Arcoleo (who then went on to become Marco Materazzi's manager at Acireale, deploying him as a full-back).And for more than 10 years nobody else had made it. So that was a great result, especially because we didn't buy players; we grew them. Then, the mafia killed Roberto Parisi, the president, and the club didn't believe in my project anymore. I went to Licata, where we won the Serie C2 title with a squad completely made up of players from the academy in a season in which the number of foreign players in Italy had considerably increased.
Still in Sicily, Salvatore Schillaci became Serie B top-scorer in 1989 while playing for you at Messina, bagging 23 goals, and joined Juventus right before those 'notti magiche' at Italia 90...
Totò always scored against me when he was playing with Messina and I was coaching Palermo youngsters, so I tried to persuade him to go west and join the rosanero, but it was never to be. Such was the rivalry between the two clubs. To see him reach those heights was, for me, a big success, though.
What's the team you were happiest coaching and why?
Roma. And not just for the team itself, but also for the passion of the supporters. In my heyday Roma had more supporters than nowadays perhaps and they were so passionate that you felt you really wanted to do everything to make them happy. Football would be meaningless without people coming to attend the games. My best game for Roma was that 3-3 against Lazio in November 1998 when we pulled back two. "Che m'hai annullato!?" ["What have you disallowed!?"] as Carlo Zampa [a commentator noted for his support for Roma] shouted. The derby is the best game you can go through. Not because of the things you see on the pitch — because generally they're quite rough — but because of what supporters do in the stands. If you lose, you smart over your defeat for days, but for the fans it's even worse. Most of them take the mickey out of each other, but some others don't just take it as a joke.
The new Roma with American owners chose Luís Enrique as coach. The new board had even considered you for a while last year...
I read this in the papers, but they never personally contacted me [last summer]. It's difficult to make it just through ifs and buts.
On his first day in the job, Luis Enrique sounded very much like you…
I consider myself more focused on the opponents' goal, to be honest. But last season I was curious to see that new Roma in action. I also thought back then that it was easier said than done. Luís Enrique seemed to have the will to change. Nowadays it's fashionable to choose young inexperienced managers. This is the presidents' choice. They believe in it and I don't feel like I want to criticise it. In Italy there are 1,500 professional managers for 70 teams — it's difficult to find the right people.
What about Lazio instead?
We could say that my best moments at Lazio were all in the 1994-95 season: the 4-0 win against European Champions AC Milan [when even the usually impeccable Franco Baresi looked uncertain and scored an own goal], or the 7-1 against Foggia [when Beppe Signori scored a hat-trick and Lazio scored four goals in the last seven minutes of the game], or also the 8-2 against Fiorentina [when Gabriel Batistuta missed a penalty, Pierluigi Casiraghi banged in four and Marco Di Vaio scored]. In a sense even the 3-0 hammering of Juventus, who were the eventual league champions, was special but I felt ashamed after that. That was Luca Marchegiani's match — he saved everything. We didn't win because we deserved to, but just because our goalkeeper was superb.
What's the best game of your career?
The best memory has to be our debut with Foggia at the San Siro against Inter: we even took the lead through Baiano on 52 minutes. Players like Salvatore Matrecano were playing in the old Serie C2 a few months before and were now facing a debut in Serie A in Milan. And they performed well. Also beating teams like Lazio or Juventus was good.
There are some memorable games in your timeline, for example when Lazio drew 4-4 in a pre-season friendly against Ajax in 1994, when they went on to be European champions, or when your Parma defeated Butragueño's Real Madrid in 1987 after they'd won seven pre-season games in a row...
I arrived in Parma when Arrigo Sacchi had just gone and there was no-one left. We had to build up from the foundation and changed as many as 22 players. People like Enzo Gambaro, Amedeo Carboni and the 17-year-old Alessandro Melli all broke into the first team. But winning against Real Madrid was good not for the scoreline, but because of the way we managed to win that game.
How would you describe yourself as a coach, and what is your coaching philosophy?
My philosophy comes straight from the Danubian school of football, where concepts such as short-passing and team play were widespread. I've only changed the rhythm. My idol was [the Romanian] Stefan Kovacs [who succeeded Rinus Michels at Ajax, winning the European Cup in 1972 and 1973]: he used to say that you have to defend by going forward. You don't have to run after the opponents, because you have to face them front-on. In Italy, managers are afraid that losing a game might mean losing their job. That's why most teams in Italy tend to not make the opponents play, rather than play themselves. You have to make every effort in order to win and not in order to avoid defeat or not to lose. That's miles away from my mentality. I'm happy because everywhere I went people loved my style of play and even those players who were sceptical about my methods at the beginning in the end surrendered and happily adapted to them. In order to work with my idea of football, a high amount of work is needed. In general though, I think that a coach must try to convey some ideas to his players and persuade them to follow him.
But sometimes the attacking mentality has also brought memorable set-backs. The 5-3 loss to Tenerife [when they surrendered a 1-0 first-leg lead despite going ahead after 14 minutes of the away game] or the 8-2 to Capello's Milan after leading 2-1 at half-time at the end of the 1991-92 season are examples of this.
I hate when people say that Serie A table is split into two — those who fight for 'something' and those who fight relegation. I've never fought to reach safety. In fact, I've never been relegated apart from the year I was in Serie B with Avellino, where politics and the system were mainly responsible. This demonstrates that my approach pays off. Although when I see other teams winning, I must say that it always depends on how you win. If there are teams around that are able to spend €150m and others like Foggia who have to stick to €2m, then it's normal that you are outclassed. But I believe you can still play good football and be competitive, even spending just a little money. To achieve what we've achieved with my teams means that we did better than the others who have spent more than us. Our rewards were bigger.
Will financial fair play smooth over the gaps?
It depends on if and how it will finally be applied. If, like many other things, there won't be any way to get around it, then yes, financial fair play could finally reward those who spend less and play better.
Why have you not coached more teams outside of Italy? What did go wrong when you were abroad?
At Fenerbahçe we didn't understand each other. I don't speak Turkish and I wasn't able to communicate properly with the players. It's difficult to develop an understanding with your players through translators. The president wanted to extend my contract but I chose to leave because I didn't feel fulfilled. At Crvena Zvezda, the club was almost bankrupt when I came so we could not put together a strong team. Of course, losing on away goals after two draws against Apoel in the second qualifying round of the Uefa Cup was decisive, although I believe that it was even too much to reach that stage of the competition and take that second leg to the very last minute of extra time. Progressing in Europe was the only source of income for the club and they sacked me.
Would you consider coaching abroad again?
I've never said I would not go abroad again. It depends on the league and on the club. I would certainly join a league where I can understand the mentality and, after the experience at Zvezda, an economically balanced club.
How do you regard English football these days?
I love the Premier League. It has always been important and recently they have changed mentality. Many European coaches have crossed the Channel in these years. Once, the English league was well known for two things: long ball and 4-4-2 from the beginning to the end. Now many teams play continental football and I think they have raised their level. I would say Manchester United are world football legends and they are the team I watch with most pleasure. They keep on winning despite the number of opponents increasing every season. Besides, I believe that the Premier League is far more competitive than the other major European leagues: they've got the two Manchester teams and the others from London which are ambitious. And this makes it more interesting by far. But to me Spanish football is the real football. Every team comes out to play and entertain people even when the minnows face the heavyweights.
What does the future hold for Zdeněk Zeman?
I'll keep going until I enjoy myself and the clubs will want to choose me. If they do, then I'll be happy. If they don't, I won't think they are wrong.
Antonello Venditti in his song also sang "il pareggio mai / non lo firmerai" ["You will never take a draw beforehand"]. Last season Pescara were knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Triestina. The Dolphins missed a penalty and then pulled back two goals in the last six minutes to take the game to a penalty shoot-out that Triestina won 12-11. Venditti was right: at heart, Zeman never changes. The immediate future for Roma should at the very least be exciting.