A selection of players who were given their starts by the idiosyncratic Czech
“I felt like Totò was my creation,” Zdeněk Zeman said of watching the striker being crowned the top scorer at the 1990 World Cup. Few know that it was the Czech coach who made the revolutionary change to Schillaci’s style and enabled him to flourish, albeit briefly, at the top level.
Zeman knew the forward from his time at Palermo. He started his career as youth coach at the town’s major club, US Città di Palermo, getting the job thanks to his uncle, the former star Čestmír Vycpálek, and worked there for almost a decade from 1974 to 1983. During that time, he frequently watched the youth team of their city rivals AMAT Palermo, where the local-born Schillaci took his first steps.
In 1982, Schillaci moved on to Messina, who were playing in Serie D, and his scoring record wasn’t impressive, to put it mildly. Franco Scoglio, appointed in 1984, took the striker under his wing. He understood that Totò was an instinctive player and gave him a free role, not bothering him with tactics. Schillaci scored 11 goals when Messina were promoted to Serie B in 1986, but he didn’t play for the team and his selfish approach could infuriate teammates and fans. He was not considered a top prospect by any means.
Messina chose Zeman in 1988 because they believed he could take the team to a new level. The owner, Salvatore Massimino, had noticed the Czech’s work at the small Sicilian outfit Licata, where he helped to nurture promising young players, including Antonio Maurizio Schillaci, Salvatore’s cousin. The latter moved to Messina after a short and disappointing spell at Lazio, and the pair played together in the 1988-89 season, which unexpectedly proved to be absolutely phenomenal for Totò.
As far as Zeman is concerned, that progress was rational. “If Totò follows my instructions, he will score more than 30 goals this season,” the Czech said just a few days after starting to work with the attacker. He implemented the 4-3-3 formation that would later become his trademark, with Schillaci as a centre-forward who had to be much more aware of the moves around him than in previous years.
With the team constantly trying to attack, Schillaci naturally got a lot of chances to prove himself in front of goal. “Totò certainly was one of the most talented players in that team,” Zeman said. “He invented a new kind of shot, where the ball goes high up in the air and then quickly falls down. It was difficult for goalkeepers. Thanks to me, Schillaci scored a lot of goals. He was an individualist, but I taught him to play with his teammates. With my schemes and my idea of the game, he had a wonderful time at Messina.”
It was a wonderful time indeed. Schillaci scored 23 goals – exactly half of Messina’s total of 46 in 38 matches. That might not sound a lot but it was the best attacking record in the whole of Serie B that season, even though Messina missed out on promotion. Fans still remember the great 3-0 win over Bari, when Maurizio Schillaci set up Salvatore for a brilliant goal.
Such prowess in front of goal brought attention from a number of Serie A clubs for the previously anonymous 25 year old. Juventus were the quickest to reach a deal with Messina. “My uncle worked as a scout for Juve at the time and he convinced the Bianconeri to sign Totò. I was happy for him,” Zeman said.
“But for Zeman, Schillaci would never have had a chance to sign for Juventus,” the Sicilian journalist Davide Mangiapane said. The move worked out well for Schillaci, who took the top division by storm. He scored 15 goals in the 1989/90 season and was called up by the national team coach Azeglio Vicini ahead of the World Cup.
The rest is history. In Italy’s opening game, against Austria, Schillaci came on as a substitute in the 75th minute with the score at 0-0. The Sicilian striker duly found the net with a rare header and never looked back, scoring six goals in the competition.
Zeman only stayed at Messina for one season because he got a lucrative offer from Foggia, who had just been promoted to Serie B in 1989. The Czech was given a free hand to ask for new players and the first name on his list was the little-known midfielder Beppe Signori, whose Piacenza side were meekly relegated to Serie C that summer.
“I first noticed Signori when he was playing on loan at Trento in Serie C,” said Zeman. “Then I watched him when we played with Messina against Piacenza. He was positioned in midfield, but for me he was a striker. I knew he could score a lot of goals, I knew it as a fact.” Finding the net for Piacenza in that game didn’t do Beppe any harm. And thus, when Signori arrived at Foggia, the coach greeted him with the words, “Benvenuto, bomber.”
“I started out as a playmaker in all my teams, before meeting Zeman,” Signori said. “Mauro Meluso, who was supposed to play up front, was injured, and I got his place. The coach explained to me what I should to and I trained a lot to become ruthless in front of goal.”
Roberto Rambaudi, who arrived from Perugia and played on the right wing in the 4-3-3, was another crucial signing by Zeman. He had a great mutual understanding with Beppe, and Signori finished his first season at Foggia with 14 goals – the third-highest tally in Serie B.
In the summer of 1990, the trio was complete when Francesco Baiano came from Napoli, who didn’t give the diminutive striker a chance and constantly loaned him out to the lower divisions. Although he was only 1.70m tall, Baiano was a classic centre-forward, and so Zeman moved Signori to the left wing. The result was sensationally good. The season started with a 5-0 win over Cosenza, and Foggia swept everyone aside, scoring 67 goals en route to a historic promotion. Signori contributed 11 goals that term – fewer than Baiano (22) and Rambaudi (15), but he was still the most popular player with the fans.
The new phenomenon was named Zemanlandia during the 1991-92 season. Most of the pundits expected inexperienced Foggia to go straight back down, but Zeman’s squad stunned everyone with an explosive style of attacking football. They finished comfortably in mid-table and enjoyed the second-best scoring record in the league behind the champions AC Milan. Signori was directly responsible for 11 of those 58 goals and also provided countless assists for Baiano and Rambaudi.
“My time at Foggia was fundamental to my growth as a footballer,” Signori said. “Zeman taught me everything about attacking play and gave me confidence. With him, I believed that I would become a good striker. The coach was the person most responsible for our promotion, because he knew how to exploit the qualities of untested players.”
“Beppe possessed a great shot and good tactical awareness,” Zeman explained.
Nobody at Foggia complained about the notoriously difficult training sessions. “Our pressing game required considerable physical effort, so we had to be in a good shape. The workouts have always been very hard,” Signori said. He improved his strength massively under Zeman.
Signori’s first season in the top flight was so impressive that almost all the top clubs tried to sign him. Lazio won the race. Beppe was crowned Serie A top scorer in his first two seasons at the club, finding the net 26 times in 1992-93 and 23 times in 1993-94. Nevertheless, he missed Zeman and was instrumental in bringing him to Stadio Olimpico in the summer of 1994.
“I was one of those who convinced the president Sergio Cragnotti to sign Zeman in 1994,” Signori said and he named the 1995-96 season under his beloved coach as the best of his career. He was top scorer of the league again with 24 goals. His only regret is that he failed to lead Lazio to the championship – the team finished second in 1995 and third in 1996.
Signori’s career never really recovered after Zeman was sacked in January 1997 and he left the club a year later. Nevertheless, Beppe is remembered as one of the best players in Lazio’s history: scoring 127 goals in 195 games in all competitions is a remarkable achievement.
Sadly, Signori didn’t always perform at his highest level for Italy, especially because Arrigo Sacchi tried to force him back into midfield. “Sacchi tried to give Beppe a lot of defensive work, but he was an offensive player who wasn’t used to that. That is why his play at the 1994 World Cup wasn’t excellent,” Zeman said.
“Every youngster should hope to be coached by Zeman,” Alessandro Nesta said at the end of his career. “He takes young lads and teaches them how to play football. In that respect, he is the best coach in the world.”
Nesta had always been highly regarded at Lazio. Dino Zoff gave the 17-year-old defender two brief substitute appearances in March 1994, but he didn’t think he was ready to play on a consistent basis. By the time Zeman arrived in the summer, Nesta was only famous for the freak accident in which he broke Paul Gascoigne’s leg in training, which was quite traumatic for the young prodigy.
“I noticed Alessandro’s skills from the very first day. He usually played for Lazio’s Primavera team, but always trained with us,” Zeman said. “The board wanted to send him out on loan to Serie C, but I persuaded them to keep him”.
Remarkably, Nesta’s first game under Zeman came in January 1995 against Foggia of all teams. The left-back Giuseppe Favalli was injured in the first half and the coach put an arm around the youngster, saying, “This is your chance.” A few minutes later, the visitors were reduced to 10 men and Lazio ran riot in the second half, winning 7-1. Nesta’s first game in the starting lineup ended in a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Bari.
Nesta mostly played as a full-back in the youth team, but Zeman soon realised that his potential was much higher in central defence, thanks to his great anticipation and superb ball distribution. Towards the end of the season, Lazio kept clean sheets in all five games with Alessandro in the starting line-up, including the 2-0 win over Roma in the derby. That was the moment when fans fell in love with the new star who performed brilliantly against the rivals who had thrashed them 3-0 earlier in the season.
In 1995-96, Nesta became an established star and Arrigo Sacchi included him in the Italy squad for Euro 96. “Zeman was very instrumental in my career because he believed in my abilities,” the defender said. “He is a misunderstood genius.” He won the title with Lazio in 2000, before moving on to AC Milan two years later to become a legend at the San Siro as well.
Under Zeman, Lazio were by far the most exciting team to watch in Serie A but after second and third-placed finishes they failed to sustain a real title challenge and Cragnotti decided to fire Zeman in January 1997, following a 2-1 loss to Bologna at the Olimpico. The fans protested about the decision and the coach, deeply hurt by the way he was treated, immediately agreed to sign for Roma in the summer.
“Francesco was 21 years of age when I came, and he didn’t score a lot of goals at the time,” Zeman said. That is an understatement. While Totti was always been considered the most talented player at the Roma academy, his first four seasons in the famous red shirt after making his debut at the age of 16 can hardly be called effective. In fact, the striker had many more cards to his name than goals and only netted 11 times in 85 Serie A fixtures. He was erratic and wasn’t fulfilling even a tenth of his potential.
It all changed dramatically under Zeman in 1997. The coach helped Totti from all points of view – tactically, physically and mentally. After one of Zeman’s notoriously tough pre-seasons, the youngster was much stronger, able to outrun the defenders in the closing stages of games. He felt much more confident, having been given the number 10 shirt that brings respect and responsibility at the same time. Positioned on the left wing in the 4-3-3, Totti was given a free hand to cut inside to use his stronger right foot. Zeman persuaded him to play for the team, applying a bit less artistry and taking a much more straightforward approach. The results were truly stunning. In a matter of weeks, a promising youngster turned into a real superstar. The coach was delighted and has always called him “la mia gioia”, “my joy”.
Totti scored in his second game under Zeman in the 3-1 win over Lecce. At the beginning of November he netted the first brace of his life, against Bari, including a stunning volley that became iconic. He was so consistently brilliant throughout that numerous pundits demanded – unsuccessfully – that the Italy coach Cesare Maldini include him in the 1998 World Cup squad.
Zeman only spent two seasons on the Roma bench and didn’t deliver the desired results, as the Giallorossi finished fourth in 1998 and fifth in 1999. However, just like Lazio, they outscored all their opponents with 67 and 69 goals respectively. For Totti, that was paradise. “Zeman’s football is the best thing an attacker can hope for. There is nothing else like it,” he would say later in his career.
Totti scored 30 goals and provided 26 assists in two seasons with Zeman, doubling his total from the previous four seasons. He never looked back, remaining one of the best players in Italy as he approaches 40. Fabio Capello managed to build on the basis laid by Zeman, added defensive stability and won the long awaited title in 2001, but Zeman has always remained the best for Totti. “Zeman is a coach and a person who made a very significant contribution to my professional and personal growth,” Er Pupone said in 2013.
Zeman has never forgotten his most beloved protégé either. When asked to name the best five Italian players, he once famously answered: “Totti, Totti, Totti, Totti and Totti.” Speaking to The Blizzard, Zeman claimed, “For me, Totti is football itself. He has vision and great skills. During my first spell at Roma, I didn’t think he would spend his entire career there. All the top clubs in Europe wanted to sign him. He chose to stay because his heart belongs to Roma. He would have won a lot of trophies elsewhere.”
When Zeman called Marek Jankulovski in the summer of 2000 and asked him whether he would like to play in Serie A, few in Italy knew the name of the young midfielder from Baník Ostrava. And yet, they probably should have known. After all, Jankulovski had impressed for the Czech Republic Under-21 team that finished second in the European Championship that summer, losing to an Andrea Pirlo-led Italy 2-1 in the final. Immediately afterwards, he was included in the senior squad at Euro 2000, making two brief substitute appearances as the Czechs were eliminated at the group stage.
However, few took notice of his talents but for the veteran coach. “I saw Marek performing for the Under-21 team and immediately understood that he was an interesting player,” Zeman said.
At the time, the coach had just returned to Italy after a disappointing spell at Fenerbahçe and had taken over at Napoli. The president Giorgio Corbelli was persuaded to give him a chance, and – according to local journalists – he might have done so on the advice of Luciano Moggi, who wanted to damage Zeman’s career because the Czech had accused Juventus of using illegal doping substances during his time at Roma. The scandal made Zeman’s life difficult and Moggi hoped that Napoli wouldn’t do his career any good. Partenopei were in disarray those days and their squad was simply not good enough to survive in Serie A.
Corbelli signed many poor players that summer, but at least Jankulovski was a great acquisition. He arrived at the training centre in a very small car that surprised the journalists and was extremely humble in the beginning. “I barely survived the first training camp under Zeman. I have never experienced anything so challenging,” the player later recalled. That doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy the results later on. Jankulovski had to be very fit to cover the left wing and made a positive impression from his very first game.
His time under Zeman was brief, because the coach was fired just six games into the season. Jankulovski took part in three of them and scored his first goal in the 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Vicenza. A week later, Zeman was gone – Corbelli fired him live on TV following the draw against Perugia, despite assuring the coach that his job was safe just hours before the game. Emiliano Mondonico, who replaced Zeman, switched from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2 and used Jankulovski as a wing-back. The Czech was consistently one of the best performers, but Napoli almost inevitably ended up getting relegated.
Jankulovski has always credited Zeman with helping him to start his Italian career. He moved on to Udinese in 2002, began playing as a left-back and became a major star at AC Milan, winning the Champions League in 2007. “I expected Marek to become a very good footballer and have a great career, but for me he was a midfielder,” Zeman said. “He wasn’t that good at the back when I trained him, but ended up in defence. That is quite strange.”
After the ill-fated spell at Napoli, Zeman went on to work at Salernitana and Avellino in Serie B. He disappeared from the radar somewhat, but lovers of gung-ho football were absolutely delighted to see him back in the top flight with Lecce in 2004. The modest southern outfit produced thriller after thriller on a weekly basis, possessing the second-best attacking record in the league – 66 goals, just one short of champions Juventus – but the worst defence at the same time with 73 goals conceded.
Mirko Vučinić was the player who benefited most from such attitude. The Montenegrin prodigy arrived at Lecce four years earlier, aged 17, and found the net just six times before meeting Zeman. He was largely considered a failure, unable to fulfil his potential, but Mirko erupted under Zeman’s guidance, playing second fiddle to Valeri Bojinov at first and then taking over himself when the Bulgarian was sold to Fiorentina in mid-season.
Zeman allowed Vučinić to roam free across the front line and he scored 19 goals in Serie A and 22 in all competitions, including a majestic hat-trick in a 5-3 win over Lazio and a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw against AC Milan. He went on to have an illustrious career at Roma and won three titles at Juventus, but never managed to reach those numbers again.
“I had a season of my life under Zeman,” he said. “I learned a lot from him and will forever be grateful to him. He is such an outstanding coach, with great charisma. He is a godsend for attackers. Zeman is the man who introduced me to Italian football, because he helped me play by my strengths. He also improves the physical condition of the players. We were always dead at the end of every training session, but then felt so fresh during games.”
As for Zeman, he thinks that the Montenegrin could have achieved more in his career. “Mirko can’t imagine how good he is,” he said. “If he scored 19 goals at Lecce, he should have scored 30 at Roma.”
Zeman’s last real comeback started when he returned to Foggia in the summer of 2010. The team was long forgotten in the third division and the arrival of the legendary coach was a source of great excitement. He signed the diminutive Napoli youngster Lorenzo Insigne on loan and results were so encouraging that Pescara gambled on both the coach and the striker a year later. Marco Verratti didn’t realise it immediately, but that was the moment when he became destined for superstardom.
Local Pescara fans have always known that Verratti is an extraordinary talent. Ever since he refused to go to the AC Milan academy at the age of 15, he was very highly regarded. During the 2010-11 season, under Eusebio Di Francesco – who himself learned a lot from Zeman as a player at Roma – the young midfielder produced some very promising performances. And yet, people simply couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw his tremendous progress in 2011-12.
With Di Francesco on the bench, Verratti had a positive season as a playmaker, but Zeman used him much deeper in his 4-3-3 formation. The youngster, then just 19, enjoyed dictating the tempo and sending delightful through balls. With Insigne running on the wing and burly central striker Ciro Immobile also having his breakthrough season, there were always plenty of options for Verratti to choose from when he got the ball and his decision-making prompted almost inevitable comparison to Andrea Pirlo. Immobile scored 28 goals that term, Insigne added 18 of his own and Pescara broke Serie B records with 90 goals in 42 games on their way to promotion.
Just 1.65m tall, Verratti was used to doubts about his physical abilities throughout his youth. Several pundits considered him too weak and lightweight to succeed at the top level, which is why Zeman helped him in more ways than one. “Marco suffered a lot during training sessions and was tired at first during games, but then he got used to it,” Zeman said. “He wasn’t good at long balls at first, but we managed to improve that. He had good technical skills and great vision. Many teams were interested in signing him, and I thought he would end up at Juventus.”
Playing alongside Pirlo would have been a dream come true for Verratti and he almost went to Euro 2012 as the understudy to the great maestro, before coach Cesare Prandelli cut him from the final squad. Eventually, though, the youngster joined Paris Saint-Germain, continuing his development into one of the brightest midfield stars in the world.
“He is great nowadays and Insigne will be as good as Verratti,” Zeman said, as the winger is having a remarkable season at Napoli. As for Immobile, who was crowned Serie A top scorer at Torino in 2013-14, but found life much harder at Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla, Zeman said, “Ciro needs the right team.”
The phenomenal success with Pescara paved Zeman’s way back to his beloved Roma, where Totti received him with open arms. As Er Pupone is close to retirement these days, Giallorossi fans must be thankful to the Czech coach for unearthing his ultimate heir. Alessandro Florenzi is on his way to becoming the new idol at the Olimpico and he owes his career to Zeman’s guidance in the first half of the 2012-13 season.
There was a certain symbolism in the fact that Florenzi made his debut for Roma as a late substitute for Totti in May 2011. However, the youngster was deemed too raw for Serie A and was sent on loan to Crotone, where Zeman himself couldn’t help but notice his talents – the versatile 20 year old scored one of his 11 goals in a 2-1 defeat to Pescara. Impressed by Alessandro’s energy, tenacity and great ball skills, the coach demanded recalling the midfielder to Roma and immediately threw him into the starting line-up.
“I didn’t promote Florenzi – he promoted himself,” Zeman said. “He worked very hard in the pre-season and proved that he is mentally tough. Having Totti as a mentor helped him a lot.” The start was quite remarkable. Florenzi scored with a great header in the second game of the season, helping Roma to a 3-1 win over Inter at the San Siro, and a new star was born.
Not all Zeman’s gambles worked out in those days. Greek midfielder Panagiotis Tachtsidis didn’t prove himself over time and left the club at the end of the season, while choosing Uruguayan goalkeeper Mauro Goicoechea, signed on loan from Danubio, was nothing short of disastrous. Eventually, it was Goicoechea’s mistake in a home defeat to Cagliari in February 2013 that prompted Roma to sack Zeman and end the fairytale.
That was a huge personal disappointment for the coach who wasn’t given enough time, but he can look proudly at Florenzi, who has become a true hero. “Alessandro is loved because he is a Romanista through and through,” Zeman said.
After a disappointing spell at Cagliari in 2014-15, Zeman now works at Lugano in Switzerland and he points to the 23-year-old winger Mattia Bottani as a potential star. “Mattia has a good will and a great spirit,” he said. “He will play at a higher level than Lugano.” Remember the name, then.
Special thanks to the Swiss journalist Marcello Pelizzari for his invaluable help in arranging an interview with Zdeněk Zeman.