Roma return to Zemanlandia
Puffs of fumata bianca or white smoke wisped through the summer’s blue sky in Rome. Yet the concave was not in session at the Vatican. There was no new Pope to select. Benedict XVI remains on the rock that is Saint Peter’s Basilica even if he is currently caught in a hard place, as the corvi scandal – so-called ‘crows’ leaking a series of sensitive documents alleging corruption and cronyism to the press – continues to cast a dark cloud over the Holy See.
No, the fumata bianca was instead seen across the Eternal city, emanating from a plush palazzo in a street off Piazza del Popolo where one of Italy’s most respected law firms is housed. It was there that Zdenek Zeman presumably pulled a packet of cigarettes out from a pocket – maybe he cadged one from AS Roma’s chain-smoking director of sport Walter Sabatini – then sparked a lighter and lit up. Inhale. Exhale. Fumata bianca.
The smoke signal curling its trail through the air led followers to the news that, after weeks of speculation, after all the dateci Zeman campaigns, he had picked up his cigarette only after he’d put down a pen to sign on the dotted line for Roma. The date of the announcement had a symbolism of its own too. June 4. It was 13 years to the day since the club had sacked him in quite extraordinary circumstances.
Zeman was first appointed by Roma in 1997 which was remarkable in itself. His previous job had been at rivals Lazio, who he’d led to second and third place finishes in Serie A. Things didn’t go so well in his third and final season with the Biancoceleste and he was fired midway through the campaign – only learning of owner Sergio Cragnotti’s decision through a group of journalists while at a coaching conference in Coverciano.
To begin with Zeman didn’t believe them. It was only after he’d heard from striker Beppe Signori, who insisted it were true, that he realized this was no joke. Embittered by the lack of respect Cragnotti had shown him, Zeman, out for revenge, vowed to win the Scudetto elsewhere. But when the phone rang one day and the caller said: “Buongiorno, it’s Franco Sensi, the president of Roma,” he thought it was a prank. Zeman responded: “Oh, yeah, and I’m Napoleon Bonaparte.” He hung up.
Sensi informed his then director of sport Giorgio Perinetti to try again. He dialed Zeman’s number and convinced him that, while it might sound far-fetched, Roma’s interest was in fact real and that the president wished to meet. Sensi had long admired him but he knew also that this appointment had great value as a coup de théâtre. Lazio supporters begrudged Cragnotti for getting rid of Zeman. Imagine how they would feel if they had to endure watching him lead Roma to the success that they craved.
As a publicity stunt, it lived up to much of its billing. Roma were soon able to boast that they were playing the most beautiful, free-spirited and entertaining football in Italy. They arguably hadn’t performed to such a high standard since the end of the Nils Liedholm era in the early `80s. While Zeman lost both derbies in his inaugural season, irritating some fans by saying it was “a game like all the others”, his team finished above Lazio in fourth place, their best league position for a decade as joint top scorers too.
And it was under Zeman’s guidance that Francesco Totti, then just 21, really began to realise his potential. The pair developed a special relationship that lasts to this day. No one has or perhaps ever will have more confidence in Totti than Zeman. He believes him to be one of the greatest footballers Italy has produced in the last 50 years along with Gianni Rivera and Roberto Baggio.
When asked more recently to name the three best players currently active in Serie A, he replied: “Totti, Totti, and Totti.” Throughout their time together at Roma, Zeman seldom referred to him by his Christian name or by his surname. To Zeman, Totti was simply stella or star. Playing on the left-hand side of an attacking trident with Abel Balbo in the centre and Marco Delvecchio on the right, he got into double figures for the first time in his career and won his first cap for Italy.
Excitement grew ahead of Zeman’s second campaign in charge. Season tickets were hard to come by and the Olimpico promised to be packed to the rafters every other Sunday. Still fresh in the memories of everyone who’d stood either in the Curva Sud or in the bars of Trastevere, Testaccio and Garbatella were the thrills that came with the 6-2 evisceration of Napoli, the 4-1 tearing apart of Fiorentina and the 5-0 humiliation of Milan that had made the highlight reel of his first year at the helm.
In addition to playing good football, Roma and Sensi in particular were enamoured with Zeman principally because he also appeared to stand for what was right. Much of the romanticism that surrounds him is down to the uncompromising vision he had of the game, refusing to play any other way than on the attack even when it would perhaps have been more opportune for his teams to tighten things up and make sure they got a result. This notion of purism was only enhanced by Zeman’s outspokenness on elements of Italian football that he felt needed cleaning up.
On August 13, 1998, he gave a sensational interview to L’Espresso, suggesting clubs were abusing prescription drugs. Zeman expressed surprise at the ‘muscular explosion’ of Juventus players. His comments caused a storm and led a crusading magistrate in Turin by the name of Raffaele Guaraniello to open an investigation. While Juventus as a club escaped punishment in 2004 with no evidence found to support the allegation that a direct order had come to administer banned substances, their doctor at the time was given a suspended jail sentence.
In the meantime, Zeman was made something of a martyr for his cause. Roma ended the `98-99 season in fifth place. They were again the league’s most prolific and thrilling side. Reservations were held, as always, about whether such a fast and loose, no half measures style – exemplified in the 5-4 defeat to Inter – would ever win any major honours, but then there were the memories of that great comeback from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 with Lazio and how about that 3-1 victory they’d enjoyed over their cugini towards the end of the championship too.
Even amid the personal attacks and the scrutiny that followed Zeman’s discussion with L’Espresso, his job appeared safe. Sensi was a kindred spirit after all. They seemed united in fighting the palazzo, the system of power believed to exist behind Italian football. But then the Roma president’s position suddenly shifted. From telling reporters “it has never crossed my mind to sack our coach” and blaming a “destabilizing press campaign” for the creation of uncertainty, Sensi’s claim that “Zeman will also train Roma next season” soon rang hollow.
There was a growing sense that Zeman was about to be betrayed by the person closest to him. Links with Fabio Capello began to emerge in the papers. Sensi had apparently grown fed up with Roma’s characterisation as ‘beautiful losers’. He wanted to win something. Changes were already being made to the coaching staff, as Sensi sought to bring in Vincenzo Pincolini and Piergiorgio Negrisolo. The writing was on the wall, but then again perhaps it had already been there for some time.
Word went round that Sensi’s decision to part with Zeman was to resolve a ‘political problem’. The palazzo had apparently spoken. “Someone has placed a veto on Zeman,” wrote Alessandro Capponi in La Repubblica. “Someone has said to Sensi: ‘either you sack Zeman or Roma will never win’. Is it possible?” Not to indulge conspiracy theories, but it’s certainly plausible considering what was learned after Calciopoli and the GEA trials in 2006. Zeman had become an inconvenience to the influential.
Sensi’s claim that “we are less the enemies of the palazzo with Capello” added to that impression, though it must also be said that Roma’s new coach hardly adhered to any supposed non-aggression pact. He too would initially show no fear in taking on the system. Disappointed at the turn of events, Zeman all but admitted that he had “followed president Sensi’s advice” to leave. “I am going abroad,” he said.
Zeman was exiled. His next job was in Turkey with Fenerbahçe. “They sent him to the Bosphorus on the edge of two continents to make him feel the fear of the precipice,” wrote the lyrical Tonino Cagnucci in Il Romanista. The great Roman crooner Antonello Venditti paid tribute to him in a song about his ‘conscience’. Zeman was out of sight but not out of mind. Expelling the coach was one thing. Banishing the idea of football he represented was another entirely, for “once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”
Nostalgia for Zeman has always been strong. Although he won’t appreciate the comparison, he has a Mourinho-esque ability to inspire the affection and loyalty of supporters at his former clubs. He can’t leave his home in the Fleming district of Rome between Ponte Milvio and via Flaminia without being approached by Romanisti and Laziali wanting to shake his hand and have their picture taken. It’s a rare achievement indeed to be loved on both sides of the capital’s footballing divide.
At the end of his first spell at Roma in 1999, Zeman said: “Perhaps one day I will return.” Many had lost hope that it would ever happen. A second coming was “quite close” in 2005. Then Sensi’s daughter, Rosella, was allegedly ‘persuaded’ not to appoint him. The marginalisation continued. Zeman was left high and dry. He’d resigned at Lecce where he’d brought through youngsters like Mirko Vucinic and Valeri Bojinov, and made the team second top scorers in Serie A. As it turned out, it was his last job in Italy’s top flight. Until now, that is.
After going back to third division Foggia two years ago, the club where he first established his reputation as a prophet in the provinces in the early `90s with a team including Signori, Gigi Di Biagio and Ciccio Baiano which is still considered one of the revelations of Italian football, Zeman worked yet another miracle this season by winning – yes, winning – Serie B with Pescara. Again, it was considered a work of art with brushstrokes provided by young apprentices like deep-lying playmaker and recent Italy call-up Marco Verratti, on loan Roma starlet Gianluca Caprari and strikers Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne.
Once Luis Enrique had declared his intention to leave Roma, citing ‘tiredness’, the clamor for Zeman to be named as his replacement got louder and louder, drowning out the candidacies of Vincenzo Montella and André Villas-Boas. Responding to reports that his decision had been swayed by popular opinion, Roma general manager Franco Baldini told reporters: “Zeman is neither a second nor a third choice. He is a choice. A year ago we offered him the role of being responsible for our youth set-up.”
In many respects, that between Baldini and Zeman is a meeting of minds. Baldini returned to Roma last summer six years after resigning from his post. Back then, he needed a break from football and spent some time out importing coffee instead. He had grown disillusioned and decried how “the best clubs in Italy have, in recent years, scientifically put together a system designed to keep them on top for as long as possible.”
Reassured that it has since been dismantled or at least checked, Baldini accepted a role with Roma’s new American owners in 2011 to outline a vision for the club. He brought in Enrique on the basis that he was “uncontaminated” by Italian football. After that, who better to turn to than Zeman, a likeminded individual known as il Boemo – the Bohemian – for his Czech roots and above all, his non-conformity.
Flag-bearers of calcio pulito and jogo bonito, their shared intents and purposes bode well for Roma. Enthusiasm is building ahead of the release of what is being called: ‘Zeman Part II: The Revenge’. A banner was tied to the railings outside the Coliseum congratulating him on going with his heart and around 300 fans turned up at the club’s Trigoria training ground on Tuesday for his official unveiling.
What then might people expect from Zeman 2.0?
Continuity is to be found in the formation, a 4-3-3 but the modus operandi will be different from last season. Whereas Enrique’s football was based on slow, ponderous ball possession made up of horizontal passes, leading some to harshly quip that Roma might as well have been playing rugby, Zeman’s is quick, hard-running, lung-bursting and direct. “Every coach has their own ideas,” he said. “[Enrique] has his and they’re good. He focuses on ball possession. I don’t, as I have no patience. It’s a question of character, but I always want to get to the goal.”
Concerns persist at the other end. Roma let in 54 goals last season and there’s little to indicate that will improve under Zeman: His Pescara conceded 55. “To win you need defenders who are in defence, at least every now and again, not always in midfieldabove all if for instance, you’re in the lead,” wrote Giovanni Bianconi in Il Corriere della Sera. “We hope that Zeman remembers this time.” Offering a response, Zeman countered: “It’s normal that every now again you risk something but when you score 90 goals [like Pescara did] it’s not important to see how many you let in.”
For all the bluster, there’s a need for realism. The obstacles Zeman once thought were blocking his path to success are more or less gone. If he fails it’ll be his own doing. Even so, it’s hard not to be taken in by the Roman-ticism that lies at the heart of this Roma. “I want to give the people emotions,” Zeman revealed. “I want them to come back to the stadium. In my time, the fans had fun and the stadium was full.”
The return of Zemanlandia to Rome is now finally upon us.
June 6th, 2012
© James Horncastle