Wilfried Zaha's career is at a crossroads… what comes next?
SAMI MOKBEL: Wilfried Zaha is thrilling, explosive and unpredictable. His career is at a crossroads with his Crystal Palace deal expiring soon… so what next for the ultimate cage fighter?
- Wilfried Zaha has been Crystal Palace’s talisman for the best part of a decade
- Zaha’s skills that have been honed in cage football have lit up Selhurst Park
- His future is again uncertain as his Palace contract is set to expire this summer
The true essence of south London’s uncompromising football cages. These tight, grilled spaces create a thrill, a danger, a drive to survive with a ball. A house of ‘ballers. Think of the Brazilian Ronaldinho with breathtakingly close control and blink-and-you-miss, unfathomable tricks. Think Wilfried Zaha.
These enclosed concrete football spaces appear all across inner-city South London, developing football jeopardy in safe spaces.
In many ways, describing them as cages is unjust; it suggests containment. That isn’t true. What goes on in those enclosures can be ferocious, but also beautiful, balletic, chaotic, uncontained.
There was a time when English football had little room for such indulgence, but not any more. One Premier League club is said to have invested heavily in similar talent factories in Brixton, just up the road from where first Zaha arrived in England from Abidjan, the sixth most populous city in Africa. Street football is now big business.
‘It makes you technically better because you’re playing in tight spaces,’ Zaha once said of his love of football’s cages.
Wilfried Zaha has become Crystal Palace’s talisman during two separate spells at the club
Zaha honed his skills in cage football and has gone back to street football in recent times
But when Crystal Palace discovered Zaha was still playing street football in recent times, when already an established member of the first team, they felt compelled to intervene.
‘We had to stop him from playing in the cages,’ Palace chairman Steve Parish told Mail Sport. ‘He just loves football. He lives it and breathes it.’
‘There is an element of peer pressure in that the lads you’ve played with, because they are your mates, you don’t want them thinking that you think you are too good for them,’ Palace’s academy director Gary Issott explains.
‘It’s loyalty. Maybe it’s misplaced loyalty, but it is loyalty nonetheless. And it shows humbleness.
‘And whilst you don’t agree with it because of the risk of injury and tiredness – you see the good in it. And that is Wilf down to a tee.’
His club understood from the start that this was no ordinary player. They were right.
More than 400 appearances later we come to a crossroads. Crystal Palace’s greatest-ever player is 30 and out of contract come July.
After Saturday’s match against West Ham, they have four games remaining this season, only two at Selhurst Park. Zaha is carrying a groin injury. The clock is ticking.
How much more will we see of him dancing around South London with a ball at his feet?
Issott has helped create a pathway for local talent at Crystal Palace in more than 15 years at the club. He is well-placed to study Zaha’s growth.
‘I feel pride, absolutely. Whenever you talk to him, you never get the feeling that he got carried away with himself.’
His mother Armel has played her part too. A devout Christian, she would give her son prayers to read before matches, he has ‘Faith’ tattooed on his torso and she instilled the importance of community and generosity from childhood.
Zaha is a Christian who reads prayers before games and he has ‘faith only’ tattooed on his torso
To that point, Zaha donates 10 per cent of his earnings to charities, in England and the Ivory Coast.
‘My mum makes sure of it as soon as the end of the month comes,’ he said earlier in his career. During the first Coronavirus lockdown, he offered free housing to London’s NHS staff in multiple properties he now owns in upmarket Notting Hill, Shoreditch and Aldgate.
Zaha won’t forgot who he is or what he’s been taught.
Raised as a proud black man, that lesson came to the fore on December 13, 2020.
Already uncomfortable with the anti-discriminatory act of taking the knee, Zaha felt it had become routine and lost its impact.
So, when the player peered over his shoulder to see two players forget the gesture, it amplified his disdain for it all. He stopped taking the knee.
‘That’s Wilf. He’s so self-assured, if he’s made a decision there is no doubt in his mind,’ said a source.
For football reasons, that was also evident when Gareth Southgate, also a son of Selhurst Park, tried to convince Zaha to reject the overtures of his homeland, The Ivory Coast.
It’s easy to forget, but Zaha has two caps for England. Indifferent substitute appearances in friendlies against Sweden and Scotland, playing for seven minutes on his debut. A game best remembered for four goals by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, including a wonderous helicopter kick goal.
Zaha isn’t afraid to make big decisions, having opted to stop taking the knee back in 2020
Zaha made two appearances for England before switching allegiances to the Ivory Coast
Tom Huddlestone, Ryan Shawcross and Carl Jenkinson were also among the substitutes. Steven Caulker, Leon Osman and Danny Welbeck were in the starting team.
Zaha played once more but was never picked again.
That irked him, although others believed Zaha was too inconsistent, or that his rivals in those attacking wide roles were better.
Fed up at continually being overlooked, Zaha finally decided to take up the Ivory Coast on their relentless attempts to persuade him to play for them.
As news reached the FA that Zaha had leant on FIFA rules allowing him to switch allegiances, Southgate sparked into action. It was too late.
‘I reached a point where I said I need to go where I’m appreciated,’ Zaha told the On The Judy podcast in 2021.
Zaha’s journey comes as a heart-enriching reminder to those from the multicultural, and often deprived, communities that dreams are attainable.
Yes, he has a natural ability, but it’s his application that’s carried his career forward.
‘On most days he is the best trainer at the club,’ Parish explains.
‘The motivation for Wilf comes from within himself, it isn’t necessarily to win trophies because Palace aren’t a club that regularly wins trophies. But there is an inner drive with Wilf that is unique.’
Opinions can differ. Speak to others and they’ll describe a different story.
‘With the talent he has, he’d be at a very top club now if he trained to his capacity every day,’ said one source.
Zaha has achieved so much at Crystal Palace, but there are still some who feel he could have done even better
It adds to a sense of unlocked potential with Zaha. Undeniably a supreme footballer, but should he have achieved more? Some believe that to be the case.
By and large, though, the stories regaled about Zaha’s performances in training are ones of wonderment.
As an Under-15 prospect, Zaha was taken to work on his crossing in the indoor training facility at Palace’s Beckenham HQ known as the ‘dome’.
‘He left a mark on me that day, his crossing for an Under-15 was different,’ recalled Issott.
‘An U15 player may struggle to reach middle to back post, may struggle to put pace on the cross to help the forwards finish. But not Wilf.’
It was the summer of 2010 when his Palace breakthrough came.
As George Burley prepared for his first pre-season in charge, he requested the academy to give him their best prospect.
Not necessarily because he wanted to fully integrate that player into his team but as proof to the youngsters that there would be a pathway under his stewardship.
Zaha never went back, making 44 senior appearances that campaign and another 48 the following season.
By this point a certain Sir Alex Ferguson was taking notice.
There are a list of clubs being linked to Zaha. PSG, Marseille, both Milan clubs and Arsenal closer to home. But there is always that question.
‘If he couldn’t do it away from his safe haven at Crystal Palace, at Manchester United, why is he worth the investment now?’
There is more to that story than meets the eye.
During the 2011-12 season, Palace drew United away in the Carling Cup. Zaha was blistering against a team that included Dimitar Berbatov, Paul Pogba, Park Ji-Sung and Chris Smalling as Palace recorded a rare victory at Old Trafford.
Twelve months later, Palace travelled to Peterborough – managed by Ferguson’s son Darren – where, yet again, Zaha was imperious as the Eagles, by this point managed by Ian Holloway, won 2-1. It is claimed that Ferguson phoned his father that very night.
Soon Zaha was invited to a private room at a London hotel. He attends and knocks on the door. Sir Alex Ferguson welcomes him in.
Wilfried Zaha’s time at Manchester United under David Moyes was a low point in his career
Zaha made just two substitute appearances at Old Trafford before returning to Palace
On January 25, 2013 – Zaha’s move to United was confirmed, though the winger was granted a loan return to Selhurst Park to lead the club’s promotion back to the Premier League. He left Palace a hero.
‘He’s just too good for you,’ was the chant. The Palace fans were right, Zaha was far too good for the Championship. But could he adjust to the Premier League? Not only that, do it at Manchester United?
Ferguson’s decision to retire that summer came as a bolt out of the blue for Zaha. The man he’d signed for was gone and replaced by David Moyes.
By all accounts, Zaha isn’t keen on talking too much about his time in Manchester, it was an empty and largely unhappy period of his life.
On the pitch, it was a collapse, a world away from the freedom of street football.
In his two years as a contracted United player – which included a six month loan at Cardiff – he made just two substitute appearances at Old Trafford.
Why? The reasons differ depending on who you talk to.
Whatever Ferguson saw in Zaha, it is clear Moyes didn’t. Ferguson may have indulged Zaha, given him the opportunity to prove his worth. Ferguson’s body of work meant he could do what he wanted.
Moyes didn’t have that luxury; giving a player who had no top-flight experience a run in the team was too risky as he faltered himself.
Zaha has admitted he felt star-struck training alongside Ryan Giggs and Robin van Persie
Some say Zaha wasn’t even up to the level required to train let alone play matches for United.
Zaha has also also openly admitted he felt star-struck in a squad that included Ryan Giggs, Robin van Persie and Rio Ferdinand.
There’s a myriad of reasons why it never worked out. But what we shouldn’t fail to consider is the impact those difficulties had on Zaha’s mental well-being.
He was just 20 by the time he moved north. He couldn’t cook, he didn’t know how to build or maintain a home. Croissants, pot noodles and microwave meals were staples on the menu. He led an isolated existence; a lonely kid, hundreds of miles away from home.
By the time Louis van Gaal, Moyes’ successor, told Zaha he was surplus to requirements in August 2014, the attacker may have been broken, although, in many ways, being told he wasn’t good enough came as a relief. He was done with Manchester, done with being alone. He wanted to go home. Back to South London.
When Palace re-signed Zaha, initially on loan, in August 2014 he arrived to a hero’s welcome.
‘He played against us when playing for Cardiff and our fans sang Wilf’s name the entire game,’ recalls Parish.
Zaha scored a 90th minute equaliser in a 3-3 draw at Newcastle on his first game back. He hasn’t looked back.
‘We call him Wolverine, the guy isn’t a normal human-being,’ Parish says.
Many believe Zaha is already Crystal Palace’s greatest ever player. It’s hard to argue.
Zaha is regarded by some supporters as Crystal Palace’s greatest ever player
In his 31st year, Zaha’s performances are growing in maturity. His emotions and petulance can still get the better of him on occasions.
But he is actively trying to be more effective in matches, though he still can’t grasp why he is fouled so often.
During a Premier League game this season one referee said to him: ‘I can’t keep giving you fouls.’
Zaha responded: ‘Why not if I’m getting fouled?’ He’s got a point.
He’s the club’s standard bearer; not just for the first-team but for those currently walking the same path as him in the academy.
They look up to him; he’s evidence of what is possible. Zaha takes that responsibility seriously, often taking time to offer advice to the club’s emerging talent.
Truth be told, Zaha has helped Palace keep their best young players from rival clubs on numerous occasions. When Zaha talks, the Palace kids listen.
Zaha has a decision to make over whether to sign a new deal with Palace or move elsewhere
His influence on the emergence of rising stars with similar skills and dreams, such as Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise, is obvious.
Palace are no longer a one-man team, as they have proven with their strides towards safety. However, he is their talisman and their leader. Their creator-in-chief and goal threat.
It is why Palace have offered him a deal thought to be worth £200,000-a-week. He is more than a player. He is one of their own.
His loss would be incalculable, but his journey has been remarkable.
Photos by Theo Cottle
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