Cult Heroes: Zdenek Zeman

Other than Arsene Wenger, no other manager has a greater influence on the philosophy and identity of his team’s style of play – this is Zdenek Zeman. He is the coach with a strong attacking philosophy, yet he works in a country where catenaccio was founded. He has an honours degree in physical education and is the son of a doctor but has chain-smoked for most of his life. Such contrasts have defined Zeman’s career. His style is Italian football’s version of Wengerball – but they call it Zemanlandia.

Zeman’s unlikely start in Italy came about because of political upheaval in his native Czechoslovakia. In the dead of the night of the 20th August 1968, the Warsaw Pact sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers across the Czechoslovakian border to halt the liberalization reforms attempted by Alexander Dubček’s government. The USSR foreign policy of halting any move towards capitalism by a socialist neighbouring country was in full flow as 500 Czechoslovaks were wounded and a 108 more killed.

At the time, the young Zeman was in Italy, visiting his uncle Cestmír Vycapálek in Sicily. It was eventually decided that prospects were bleak for Zeman in Czechslovakia so he went back to live with his uncle. Zeman had studied physical education in Prague, while playing volleyball and handball as a youth international. But sport in Italy meant only one thing – football.

At the time, Italian football did not permit sides to play foreigners. So Zeman coached various amateur sides while studying to complete his degree at the University of Palermo, despite speaking extremely limited Italian. It was enough to land him a coaching role with Palermo’s youth academy. The potential was starting to emerge despite the limitations of his new job:

“We had nothing. No pitch, no balls, no kit…we bought those cheap rubber balls that always got holes in them. Nevertheless, we worked hard. In nine years at Palermo, 60 players went on to become professionals. Sixty…”

Zeman graduated from University in 1975, and obtained his coaching license from Coverciano in 1979, where his classmates included one Arrigo Saachi. Saachi wrote a thesis on aggressive zones, high defensive lines and pressing – the blueprints of his great AC Milan side. Zeman, on the other hand, focussed on the short, triangular passing game that became his trademark at Foggia.

Zeman’s hard work got him his first managerial role in 1983 with Licata, newcomers who had only joined the professional ranks a year earlier. Naturally, Zeman won the Serie C2 title with a side of youth team products. It wasn’t the players or the results that caught the eye, but the attacking tactics in a country with a strong defensive mentality. It was the makings of the modern 4-3-3. Football writer Gabriele Marcotti said of the formation:

“At a time when almost every side in Italy played with two man-markers and a sweeper, Zeman devised a back four that marked zonally, with defenders lining up in a half-moon shape, the full-backs a few steps ahead of the two stoppers. The three-man midfield featured a deep-lying playmaker, whose main task was to receive the ball and get rid of it as quickly as possible, deciding in a split-second which way to build the play.

The other two midfielders, who sat either side, had clearly defined jobs. Their priority was to communicate with the full-backs when they progressed up the flanks, but either could burst into the box to give more manpower or sprint into a wing position. The front three was not a traditional combination of target man and wingers. All three were genuine strikers, and the wide men were charged with dragging full-backs out of position or flooding the box.”

After Licata, there were a few years of club-hopping, but not without its results. Zeman had his first stint at Foggia in the season of 1986-87 but was fired before the season’s conclusion – this was followed by a seven-match spell at Parma. It was at Messina in 1988-89, where the 23 goals of Salvatore Schillaci led the side to an 8th place finish. The striker’s six-goal haul at Italia 90 was something perhaps only Zeman could have foreseen.

Pasquale Casillo, the Neopolitan chairman of Foggia, had regretted his rash decision to fire Zeman previously, and so re-hired him in the summer of ’89 along with Peppino Pavone, a director of sport with a keen scouting eye. The side were newly promoted to Serie B, and Zeman got them promoted to Serie A in just his second season. They finished 6 points clear at the top and scored 15 more goals than any other side.

This was followed by an easy 9th place finish in Serie A, with his front line of Beppe Signori, Ciccio Baiano and Roberto Rambaudi scoring 36 goals. They had the second-best attack in Italy, scoring 58 goals, with only Capello’s Milan scoring more. Zeman’s dazzling style was epitomised by the fact that they also conceded 58 goals. They called it Foggia dei Miracoli (the Miracle of Foggia).

With the help of Pavone, Zeman acquired eventual Foggia legends in Luigi di Biagio, Igor Shalimov, José Antonio Chamot, Dan Petrescu and Igor Kolyvanov along with the trio of aforementioned strikers. Zeman improved these players greatly through his training sessions based on ice hockey, where three or four players repeat variations of passing and movement based on game situations.

The length and intensity of Zeman’s training his famous, and with fitness such an important aspect of football, naturally Zeman doesn’t employ a specialist. He prefers to conduct every aspect of training himself, much like how Arsene Wenger operates at Arsenal. Due to such training methods, Zeman managed to bring levels out of players that they didn’t know they had.

For example, Beppe Signori was moved from left midfield to striker. He then proceeded to score 14 in his first year at Foggia, before hitting 26 in his debut season at Lazio. Before Zdenek Zeman, Signori struggled to score more than five in a season. If teams and players were willing to accept the philosophy of Zeman, it seemed they could only profit from his management.

Then, it seemed to prove a point, Foggia sold six starters in 1992 after two campaigns finishing mid-table comfortably. Zeman signed a number of players from the lower leagues and guided the team to safety in the following two seasons. The club was beset with financial problems as Zeman left in 1994 for Lazio to reunite with former pupil Beppe Signori.

There he took the Roman club to 2nd and 3rd placed finishes with attacking football once again. He also handed first-team opportunities to a young Alessandro Nesta. Supporters protested against his sacking midway through the 1996/97 season, and their pain was to be amplified as Zeman took a job at bitter rivals AS Roma. He managed to finish 4th and 5th in two seasons before he was replaced with Fabio Capello in 1999.

Zeman is also credited with the development of Francesco Totti at Roma, by placing him on a fitness regime to improve his physique and stamina. The improvements were evident as Totti scored 13 in his first year under Zeman’s tutelage, a stark contrast to the 5 goals he managed in the previous campaign.

After Roma, it was expected he would join another big Italian side, but Zeman took the nomadic route – in Turkey with Fenerbahce. That lasted a mere three months before short stints at Napoli and Salernitana.

There was an unsuccessful reunion with Casillo and Pavone at Avellino in 2003 before another high at Lecce in 2004/05 where he led the team on a rollercoaster of a season. They missed out on being Serie A’s top-scorers by one goal but the attacking style of play meant they only secured their safety on the final day of the season. But Zeman rejects criticism that his side cannot defend:

“They say my teams can’t defend. That isn’t true. At Lazio one season, we conceded the fewest goals in Serie A. But it’s equally true that the players I like would rather attack than defend. I encourage that, because attacking is positive and more difficult than simply defending and destroying.”

Zeman has made many enemies throughout his time in Italy – including Luciano Moggi, the former Juventus sporting director (now banned for life because of corruption). Zeman claimed there was strong pharmaceutical abuse by Juventus throughout the 90s, but was later proven to be incorrect by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. His nose for corruption was not far off, with both Juventus and Milan eventually implicated in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. Such an outspoken attitude has been given as a reason as to why Zeman hasn’t coached one of the big Northern clubs, although Inter owner Massimo Moratti admitted he had considered the Czech coach as Jose Mourinho’s replacement.

In the summer of 2010, Pasquale Casillo reacquired Foggia, reuniting Pavone and Zeman after seven years. Memories of the great Foggia side of the past have been stirred as Foggia fans start to dream of this triumvirate leading them back to the glory days. But football has changed greatly, with increasing commercialism, so it would be unrealistic to hope for a Foggia renaissance, but stranger things have happened.

At the time of writing, Foggia lies 7th in Lega Pro 1 – Girona B (formerly Serie C1). The sense of adventure is still there. After all, they’ve already lost 5-3 and drawn 4-4, scoring twice in each of their three victories so far. Zemanlandia is back where it belongs.

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