21 July ~ Zdenek Zeman, man of few words and many cigarettes, is back at Foggia, scene of his greatest triumphs in the early 1990s. The laconic Czech took the Puglia club to within touching distance of a UEFA Cup spot, winning over neutrals with an attacking trio of Beppe Signori, Roberto Rambaudi and Ciccio Baiano that in 1992 was second only to Fabio Capello's AC Milan as Italy's most potent forward line.
Foggia are now down in Lega Pro Prima Divisione (formerly Serie C1) and had been facing an uncertain summer, stricken by continuing financial woes that threatened to see them thrown out of the league along with other celebrated names from calcio's past (Pro Vercelli and Perugia among them). However, it's not just Zeman who's returned. Pasquale Casillo, the satanelli's (little satans) former president, is back as well, hopefully securing the club's future, and bringing with him former sporting director Giuseppe "Peppino" Pavone.
The trio got back together last year at a screening of Zemanlandia, a documentary reliving Foggia's time in the Serie A sun. Looking at the cold stats, Foggia's "miracle" was actually rather tame – in their four seasons in the top flight they finished ninth, 12th and ninth before being relegated in 16th place in 1994-95. That was only half the story of course. Watching footage of a youthful Signori slicing his way through defences at a packed Zaccheria stadium prompts pangs of nostalgia, not just for the idea of a small club on limited resources mixing it with the big boys, but also for Italian football's glamour-puss golden age.
The cult of Zeman, out of work since he was sacked by Red Star Belgrade in 2008, remains strong. He's a love-or-hate figure with more than a touch of José Mourinho about him; two determined feather-rufflers (when Zeman does open his mouth, it's usually to hit out against alleged injustice or corruption within the game) and both with an ability to get the best out of players by installing a fireproof sense of belief. In terms of playing philosophy, however, il Boemo couldn't be more different. Zeman has always favoured a quick-pressing 4-3-3. It's simple stuff but hugely effective when the attacking full-backs join the fray (Signori recently completed his studies at Coverciano – the national coaching centre – writing a thesis on his former coach's tactics).
Casillo, an expansive, expressive Neapolitan who spent 13 years clearing his name after accusations that his cereal business had Camorra links, originally hired Zeman at Foggia back in 1986 but sent him packing after one uneventful season. He took another chance on him three years later and then, in 2003, the two reunited at Avellino. It was a disaster, with the club relegated to C1.
In 27 years, Zeman has just one Serie B and one C2 title to his name. His claim last year that Luciano Moggi (who he worked with briefly at Napoli) had ruined his career adds to the myth-making, but increasingly the 63-year-old has been dismissed as a beautiful loser, a man out of time who had plenty of chances to prove himself at the top level. Yet 3,000 Foggia season-tickets were sold on the day news broke of his return (no mean feat for a club at that level). In the old days fans would give him sweets before kick-off in the hope that he would cut down on his ciggie consumption and when the final whistle blew they would wait until he got up from the bench before themselves heading for the exits. It's a little sad to see such a vital figure have to drop down a league or two, but it promises to be intriguing stuff, maybe just the jolt Zeman needs. And certainly no one said never go back a second time. Matthew Barker