24 October ~ On October 22, 1983, I saw a highly entertaining 2-2 draw in a fourth-level Serie C2 match in Rome's Stadio Flaminio between Lodigiani of Rome and Licata, from Sicily. Ten years later almost to the day I saw Atalanta hang on desperately for a 1-1 Serie A draw with nine-man Foggia. The common denominator? The coach of both Licata and Foggia was Zdenek Zeman. Now 64, Zeman is currently in charge of Serie B Pescara. They have 22 points from 11 games, having scored 27 goals and conceded 18. Last season, back at Foggia in the third-tier Prima Divisione, he led his side to a sixth-place finish with 67 goals scored and 58 conceded in 34 games.

These figures tell you all you need to know about Zeman. He sends his teams out to attack. Usually a 5-3 result in Italy means that something has gone wrong, but with Zeman it's the 0-0 that is the exception.
Born in Bohemia, he found himself in Italy during the failed 1968 revolution and never returned. He has been an Italian citizen since 1975, and has a degree in physical education, which included a dissertation on sports medicine. I wish there were more coaches like Zeman in Italy. His critics say he has won little or nothing. He has of course had his failures, usually because he couldn't convince conservative players to adapt to his methods.

He is also a coach who cannot take over a club mid-season, as his disastrous 11-game stint with Brescia in 2006 showed. But what he achieved at small-time Foggia between 1989 and 1994 was little short of miraculous as he launched players like Giuseppe Signori, Francesco Baiano and Roberto Rambaudi to stardom. When he left Foggia returned to their previous anonymity.
He is more than a coach. He teaches his players to play a style of football that entertains the paying customer. His teams, always in the 4-3-3 formation, play like a tightrope walker with no safety net under him. More than that, he genuinely believes in the importance of fair play.

But he is a hate-figure with much of the football establishment because of his 1998 revelations on sport and doping with particular reference to Juventus. In the face of vicious criticism (Gianluca Vialli called him a “terrorist”) he has always stood his ground, and has been proved right even though no Juventus player of the 1994-98 era was ever suspended because the substances administered were not illegal at the time.
In the murky world of Italian football, Zeman is a beacon of light. You could almost call him an Italian version of Ron Greenwood, an idealist largely preaching in the desert. He will receive no thanks from the authorities, but when he finally retires, the fans should erect a monument to him. Richard Mason

Comments (5)
Comment by TheRedMax 2011-10-24 13:24:42

A slightly rose-tinted appraisal of Zemans career (no mention of his time at Fenerbahce, Napoli & Red Star Belgrade), but he is a gifted if unorthodox coach.
I'm just surprised he hasn't smoked himself to death by now.

Comment by geobra 2011-10-24 14:49:12

The article does say that he hasn't always been successful. His methods are more suited to ambitious and promising up-and-coming players who are willing to listen and learn than to the spoiled 'superstars' of a country's top club, which might explain why he failed at Fenerbahçe and Red Star Belgrade.

The same thing happened to Luigi Delneri when he went to Porto from Chievo Verona, and he also only lasted one season at Juventus. They are both coaches whose forte is improving good but not exceptional players. Even they can't turn bad players into good ones, as Zeman's failure with Avellino in 2003-2004 showed.

I agree about the smoking, though. He says he hasn't seen a film since they banned smoking in cinemas, and match days must be agony for him as he's not allowed to smoke on the bench either.

Comment by FCKarl 2011-10-25 09:46:52

Interesting the comparison with Ron Greenwood. Might you have a good book recommendation on the life of Ron Greenwood? It would be interesting to read more about him.

As for Italia and attacking football, yes, please. Desperately needed, in my view. Most definitely in Serie B -- when I view the scorelines.

I wonder how a former member of the high flying Barca attack squad, young striker Bojan now with AS Roma, will learn to adjust to the Serie A ways. Or the German Miroslav Klose now with Lazio.

I like coaches who prefer or excel at the "smaller addresses" in football.

Surely that is more rewarding? Taking a more raw talent at age 19 or 21 and seeing them soar to the heights of sport at the highest levels, maybe in the national team, or long stays at top clubs. Letting them go at age 24 or 25 must be bittersweet.

Last: I cannot imagine any coach (now matter how good) having any long term, let alone short term successes in Turkey. If you leave your coaching job with your pants still on and your scalp, you've done a good job.

Comment by geobra 2011-10-25 11:28:50

On Ron Greenwood, Amazon lists 'Soccer Choice' (1979, written with Bryon Butler) and 'Yours Sincerely' (1984). Surprisingly, nobody seems to have deemed him worthy of a biography since his death. Like Zeman, he was far from perfect, but he too was a teacher as well as a coach.

His West Ham teams from 1961 to 1974 were notable for the fact that they didn't play 'English' football. Their high risk play meant that they weren't particularly successful, especially in the league, but visits to Upton Park were rarely boring.

And occasionally, as in the 2-0 win over Munich 1860 in the 1965 European Cup Winners Cup Final at Wembley or the 7-0 hammering of Leeds in the League Cup in 1966, everything clicked and they produced displays that were close to perfection.

Comment by geobra 2011-10-25 12:59:29

PS. I know because I was lucky enough to see both games. The only team that I know of today that plays football similar to what I saw on those two evenings is Barcelona. And remember that this was Don Revie's Leeds.

Probably Greenwood was too much of a purist. If he'd added a little more pragmatism, he might have turned West Ham into a great team for a few years. He was sometimes let down by the off-field behaviour of players who betrayed the trust he rather naively placed in them.

He was a man of his word, which is why, in 1967, he signed Bobby Ferguson from Kilmarnock when he could have reneged on the deal and bought Gordon Banks.

He also blocked a move to Tottenham for Bobby Moore, which soured the relationship between the two.

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