"I was looking for someone outside of Italian football. Uncontaminated. I like his boldness, both toward the game and in his character. He is very motivated. His aim is to score goals.” So said Franco Baldini last year as the Roma General Manager discussed his decision to appoint Luis Enrique as Coach with La Repubblica. Yet they could just as easily have been used to describe the man who replaced the Spaniard at the Capital club, Zdeněk Zeman.
Born in Prague, Zeman is undoubtedly an outsider in every definition of the word, seemingly either loved or loathed by anyone with more than a passing interest in the game on the peninsula. But, as they look to continue the rebuilding which started twelve months ago when the club was taken over by Fenway Sports Group’s Thomas Di Benedetto, it is he to whom the Giallorossi have turned.
The coach transformed previous club Pescara into this season’s Serie B Champions, capturing his first title since winning the same honour with Foggia back in 1992, his trophy haul perhaps at odds with the esteem in which he is held by many. His admirers will tell you that he could never be defined by medals, statistics or accolades and it was with that original second division crown that his legend was born. He lead the Puglia club from the third division to within reach of a UEFA Cup spot, winning over neutrals with team showing an attacking verve almost alien to the sport in the days when Fabio Capello’s Milan were busy grinding their way to domestic and continental success.
Known as the ‘Foggia of miracles’ and the first home of Zemanlandia – a word which has become part of a grandiose rhetoric that follows wherever he goes – his debut in the top flight saw a comfortable mid-table finish despite having what was, on paper, one of the weakest squads in the division. He may have introduced the likes of Giuseppe Signori, Dan Petrescu, Luigi Di Biagio and Bryan Roy to the world but it was his system, seemingly designed only to attack, that truly caught the imagination. That first Serie A campaign would encapsulate the very essence of that style, smashing a total of 58 goals – second only to Champions Milan – while conceding the exact same number, testament to the scant regard the coach has always held for defending.
He went on from there to Lazio, leading them to second and third place finishes before revealing another of the traits most commonly associated with his name. If observers of the game in Italy were already aware of his love of attacking football and cigarettes, his choice to join bitter rivals Roma after being sacked by the Biancocelesti would mark the beginning of his penchant for causing controversy. He would guide them to a thrilling fourth place finish before launching allegations of doping against Juventus, specifically citing the changes in the physique of Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluca Vialli.
Since then – after his constant rallying against the establishment saw him become a tainted outcast – he led a nomadic existence, taking in nine clubs as varied as Napoli, Fenerbahçe and Red Star Belgrade before returning to Foggia for the 2010-11 season. Initial excitement saw the modest club, by then back in the third tier, sell some 3,000 season tickets within 24 hours of announcing his appointment. Sadly he was unable to recapture his former glory at the Stadio Zaccheria and missed out on a playoff place, quickly leaving for the Pescara job.
The cult of Zeman remained strong, fed as it was with a steady flow of nostalgia and, in typically enigmatic fashion, he continued to add to it once settled at the coastal club. Their title run this term culminated in a return to the top flight, an accomplishment they last achieved in 1992 and has stirred memories of those Foggia days as they scored an incredible 90 goals – 30 more than the second highest scoring side – whilst conceding 55, a total almost double that of second place Torino. Like all Zeman teams the only predictable thing about them is their wildly entertaining unpredictability, streaming forward with reckless abandon and caring little for any threat carried by their opponents.
His Pescara are a remarkable blend of different players, combining a number of veterans cast aside by others with some wonderful young players. Loanees including Ciro Immobile (Juventus) leading the league with 28 goals, alongside the invention and trickery of Lorenzo Inzigne (Napoli, 18 goals) and the vital contribution of Gianluca Caprari (Roma) have been particularly impressive. The form of 19 year old local boy Marco Verratti is drawing admiring glances from Italy’s grandest clubs and earned him a spot in Cesare Prandelli’s preliminary squad for Euro 2012.
They often had as many as eight players on the halfway line for kick-off and, despite Zeman’s own chain-smoking antics, he demands his players to be incredibly fit, valuing stamina almost as highly as he does goals. Watching his teams it is easy to see why as he expects them to run almost non-stop throughout the ninety minutes of play and his training methods are infamous for their gruelling nature, known to encompass hour after hour of running along beaches, through forests and up and down the steps of the stadium.
Zeman makes a mockery of the clichéd demands for evolution, getting Pescara playing exactly the same style, formation and tactics as his Foggia side despite the two stints being over twenty years apart. Perhaps that was the true miracle of those early days, the visionary use of a 4-3-3 system that embraced a high-pressing style and attacking full-backs, a way of playing utilised by so many in the modern day. It was a point he touched upon in his inaugural press conference with Roma, telling the gathered journalists;
“People say I have changed tactically, but I don’t really agree. I want my team to entertain the fans and bring them closer to the team, giving them strong emotional responses. I hope to convince the sceptics that we can work well.”
That even back in the early nineties he spoke of geometry and passing triangles only serves to reinforce the feeling that he truly was ahead of his time and, as evidence suggests, he is almost the perfect man to continue the work of Luis Enrique, not just because that ‘outsider’ status. While the Spaniard was perhaps – considering the modest level of his previous experience – given too much faith by Baldini and Roma’s management, he certainly received far too much blame for the perceived failure of a project that was less than a year old when he departed.
Similarly, faith in the returning hero is hardly likely to be lacking and he will be given far more leeway than that afforded to his predecessor simply because he is Zdeněk Zeman. We can be sure that his new Roma will entertain as, to again quote from his unveiling, “if you score 90 goals then it shouldn’t really worry you how many are conceded.” That is the undeniable truth of Zemanlandia. Enjoy the ride!
Adam is a regular contributor to IBWM and can be found on Twitter @Adz77.