Surprisingly unknown outside of Italy, Zdenek Zeman is a veritable legend in the peninsula. The Czech born coach, currently guiding Pescara in Serie B, will undoubtedly have his own chapter in all current and future historical calcio related publications; such has been his impact over the last 20 years. Despite this, it is wholly possible that some fans will be perplexed when his name is mentioned, wondering what the fuss is all about. So who is Zdenek Zeman, why he is he loved and loathed by the tifosi and what makes him such an important part of the fabric of Italian football?
Zeman was born in Prague but came to live in Italy after having visited his uncle in Palermo (who had been a player for Juventus) but was unable to return home due to the political situation in his country, then known as Czechoslovakia. His uncle’s influence helped him get into coaching and he began his career training local Sicilian sides. Already having gained a degree in Sports medicine, Zeman went on to pass his full licence at the famed Coverciano football coaching school in Florence.
He had some success in the lower leagues but his place in folklore would be forever secured when taking charge of Foggia in 1989, creating what is now known as the ‘Foggia Dei Miracoli’ or more commonly ‘Zemanlandia’. Foggia was a small club with no real football history other than some sporadic appearances in Serie A. Zeman put together a team of what were considered relatively weak players, some unknowns and youngsters full of nothing more than promise.
Incredibly, for three seasons this ‘hopeless’ squad finished in comfortable mid table positions and played a brand of football that can only be described in its rawest form – all out attack. What made this all the more exceptional was that Zeman managed to mould such a successful team when Serie A was by far the strongest league in European football.
This period with i Satanelli allowed the likes of Francesco Baiano, Giuseppe Signori, Dan Petrescu. Roberto Rambaudi, Jose Antonio Chamot, Luigi Di Biagio, Igor Shalimov, Bryan Roy and Igor Kolyvanov transform from nobodies into some of the most sought after players in the league, who would all go on to join bigger clubs.
But it was not only the players that reaped the rewards that came from his extraordinary achievements. The coach himself was courted by the top teams and he went on to coach Roma, Lazio, Fenerbahce of Turkey and Napoli. His time with the roman clubs were highlights, as he took both of them to top 5 finishes, including a runner up spot with the Biancocelesti.
Zeman’s legacy to the whole of calcio is not only in what he managed to create with such supposed meagre talents, but the manner in which he did it. Most critical in this respect is his philosophy on how the game should be implemented and on his unprecedented sense of fair play.
In a country where the sport is dissected almost scientifically and all tactical aspects are planned and rehearsed to a microscopic detail, Zeman completely threw these methods out of his training ground window and simplified his strategy down to one premise – entertainment. He introduced the 4-3-3 to Serie A and whilst most teams preferred to pack their midfield the Foggia coach preferred to pack his attack. He could almost be described as ‘visionary’ such is the popularity of this formation in the current game today.
It could be suggested that defending has little importance to Zeman. This may be a simplistic view but the only true defenders in his team are the two centre backs. And in keeping with his philosophy, they will be expected to play as high up the pitch as possible, relying on the offside trap, an extreme form of zonal marking and the goalkeeper to deal with any incursions that they fail to repel.
When out of possession, the Czech asks the nearest players to crowd out the opposition in an attempt to strangle the space around him so that he is more likely to lose the ball. However, the most important elements of his ‘defence’ are the full backs and they are tasked with tirelessly running the flanks and provide support not only to the midfield but to the trident attack. Defending is a secondary concern.
His attacking principles are much more straightforward. He expects as many players as possible to fill the final third of the pitch in order to maximise the chances his team create by outnumbering their opponent. Simple perhaps or even childish some might say, but certainly very spectacular.
The incredible miles players need to run over 90 minutes, due to the tactics, Zeman’s training methods are famed for the huge importance the chain smoking tactician places on stamina. His gruelling fitness sessions that include hours of running up and down the stadium steps, through forests and along sandy beaches are well documented.
Current loanee Moussa Kone explained on a recent TV interview how he was mocked by his Atalanta team mates when he announced he was joining Pescara for the current season, as his companions warned him of the endless stamina sessions he would be forced to do.
His attitude to football is allied to his belief that the game must first and foremost entertain the supporters. The risk with such a belief is that you rarely get any middle ground when it comes to results. You either win or lose, with plenty of goals flying in at both ends. Zeman’s teams will always score but they also concede just as easily, leaving his ‘goal difference’ column forever stuck on zero. In Italy, this philosophy either brands you a genius or a buffoon and he splits public opinion completely in two.
The Czech, always one to speak his mind, does court controversy. He believes in ensuring the sport is kept clean and honest and comments made over the doping scandals in Serie A, especially attacking certain Juventus players who returned from long term injuries looking ‘extremely muscular’, were not always very well received by the establishment. He despises the way football has become an industry and is quoted as saying, “this sport is hugely popular not because of big business or pharmacies but because in every corner of the world there is a child having fun with a football…”
Zeman stands out from his peers because of his single minded attitude and belief in his own methods. Where other coaches were cautious and defensive, Zeman committed as many of his team to attack. He champions youth whilst others prefer to rely on experience and he speaks out about the ills in football when many would rather bury their heads in the sand.
Had his footballing uncle been in England and not Italy, its wholly possible Zeman’s style would have brought him real success and worldwide recognition; such is the importance on entertainment in the British leagues. But, it could be equally argued that the sheer impudence of the man to take his attacking football to the home of catenaccio, Franco Baresi, Gaetano Scirea, Claudio Gentile and Paolo Maldini is probably what has made him the living legend he is today.
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