Italian Football: The return of Zdenek Zeman

Roma boss Zdenek Zeman

With the enigmatic Czech manager returning to Serie A, Jonathan Wilson wonders if it's worth backing Roma to topple Juventus this season...


Juventus remain prohibitive favourites to win the scudetto at 1.910/11, but the 8.07/1 available on Roma may be decent given AC Milan's woes [they are 9.2] and how comfortably they beat Inter 8.415/2. Napoli, who have begun with two wins are 8.615/2.


Football rarely hands out sentimental favours. It's a tough game, a game that breaks even the most courageous of men. Few leave it with dignity, at the height of their careers; for most, it's failure that defines their final weeks and they depart with titles lost or relegation suffered, form waning and boos echoing behind them. Recognition and appreciation tends to come only later, when the dust has settled and the anger or frustration felt in the bad times has cleared to allow proper recognition of their achievements.

That's why, after a six-year gap, Zdenek Zeman returns to Serie A on such a tide of good will. The Czech is awkward, cantankerous and idiosyncratic, but his teams play wonderfully attacking football. And most of all, in an era in which the spectre of match-fixing seems to lurk in every corner of every Italian stadium, when the drug abuses of the nineties are finally being admitted, Zeman is and was clean.

Zeman's criticism of Juventus in the 90s was trenchant and few doubt that the reason he suddenly found it so hard to get a job in the early part of the last decade was that Luciano Moggi, the now-discredited former managing director of Juventus, was lobbying against him.

Yet Zeman's philosophy has its roots at Juve. His uncle Cestmir Vycpalek won successive scudetti there as coach in 1972 and 1973 and it was from him that he took his policy of focusing on youth.

Zeman, born in 1947, visited Italy in 1966, 1967 and 1968, when he stayed for four months because the Soviet invasion of Prague made it difficult for him to return home. He settled in Palermo the following year and studied at the ISEF, a much-lauded sporting institute. There he played ice hockey, volleyball, handball and baseball before becoming a swimming coach. Only in 1979 did he receive his football coaching qualification from Coverciano.

He worked in Palermo's youth set up, then led Licata to promotion from Serie C2. He moved on to Foggia, was sacked, went to Parma and Messina and then returned to Foggia. And then the miracle happened. A young team playing an aggressive 4-3-3 surged from Serie C to Serie A. For three seasons, despite having an extremely limited budget, a team featuring the likes of Giuseppe Signori, Roberto Rimbaudi, Francesco Baiano and Igor Shalimov, they hovered on the fringes of Uefa Cup qualification. It was the great romantic story of Serie A in the early nineties.

Then he moved on to Lazio, where he finished second and third, and Roma, where he finished fourth before, after his allegations about Juventus, his career fell off a cliff. Fans remember his stand, though, and now he is back with Roma, he is being saluted. A week gone Sunday at the San Siro, Inter fans held up a banner reading, "Honour to Zeman, icon of clean football." It was typical of him that this week he launched an attack on Giancarlo Abete, the president of the Italian federation, calling him "an enemy of football".

Not just clean football, but also winning football. Despite being without much of their first-choice midfield and despite losing Daniele De Rossi midway through the first half, Roma were superb. They controlled the game and won 3-1, with Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, who scored twice for Italy against Bulgaria last Friday, in exceptionally sharp form, adding the second with a brilliant chip from a superb through-ball from a rejuvenated Francesco Totti. The pressing and harrying and invention were all there; the only difference from 13 years previously, when Zeman left the Roma job, was that it somehow felt less harum-scarum, more measured.

Osvaldo is suspended for Sunday's game against Bologna, who have lost both matches so far, and there are doubts over the fitness of Totti and De Rossi. The 1.434/9 available on Roma to win looks a little tight but if they aren't quite on top form, it may be worth backing under-2.5 goals at 2.68.

Juventus remain prohibitive favourites to win the scudetto at 1.910/11, but the 8.07/1 available on Roma may be decent given AC Milan's woes [they are 9.2] and how comfortably they beat Inter 8.415/2. Napoli, who have begun with two wins are 8.615/2.

The romantic, though, would love to see Zeman, older now, redder of face and thinner of hair, returning to topple Juventus, his old nemesis - but football rarely hands out sentimental favours.


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