Zdenek Zeman occupies a strange place in Roma history. Despite not accomplishing much of anything on the pitch, thanks to his brash style and unfettered dealings with the media, not to mention calling out Juventus for cheating, Zeman has endeared himself to the Roma faithful like few, if any, managers in club history. After all, we’re talking about a man under whom Francesco Totti flourished, earning the number 10 shirt and captains armband. Zeman could have literally done nothing beyond that and still wound up as the club’s most beloved coach of all time.
Despite those pleasant memories, Zeman was not without his detractors. Sure, his style of play was aesthetically pleasing and his quips, though humorous in the present tense, were ultimately immature and unproductive and came off as just petulant whining. For all his bragging and boasting, he came up short.
So it was with much joy and consternation that Roma welcomed Zeman back to their good graces in 2012; winning was far from guaranteed, but you knew the club would be conditioned beyond reproach and would make opponents pay for any missteps or tactical misgivings. And while it didn’t ultimately work out—his approach, as exciting as it may have been, was too rigid and too unrealistic to unseat Juventus, to say nothing of even qualifying for Europe—it was an exciting time in club history.
But still the memories persisted. His chain smoking, his 11 men at the line for kickoff and his willingness to buck the face of tradition were a welcomed change from Luis Enrique’s fruitless tiki taka experiment. So, to a certain segment of Roma fans, Zeman’s legend grew even stronger; he wouldn’t attain any higher glory, but goddamnit, he did it his way and he went down swinging—there’s a certain beauty and romanticism in that approach, one that holds more value than titles.
One thing Zeman is not is an apologist, and in the buildup to tomorrow’s Roma-Pescara showdown, Ol’ ZZ couldn’t help but reminisce.
On his relationship with Daniele De Rossi, Zeman didn’t pull any punches:
People went on about my rapport with De Rossi, but his performances with me were not positive. He had an average of 4.5 out of 10 per game, and I wasn’t the one giving that score. My style of football was not suited to his particular qualities.
The football I want is different. As a young player, De Rossi did adapt to it, but when he became more experienced, he struggled to settle back into that.
While we can credit him with not being beholden to tradition, sitting DDR in favor of Panagiotis Tachtsidis was always a head scratcher, particularly considering how much success De Rossi has had since then. Zeman’s assertion that De Rossi struggled or couldn’t adapt was absurd.
On his favorite son, Francesco Totti:
I believe Totti has done so much and if he feels that he’s better than the teammates around him, it’s right that he continues to play. When he realises that the others are superior, that is when he must stop.
I don’t think he’s of much use when played for the final five minutes, even if last season his late goals off the bench effectively took Roma into the Champions League.
Can’t argue with anything here, he’s absolutely correct. Totti isn’t a 90 minute player anymore, and he’s probably not even a 45 minute player, but as a game changing element, he’s still got it and deserves more than a five minute cameo. But as we’ve said all along, if the fire still burns, it would be hard to see Totti walking away.
On his prior tenures with Roma:
You pretend not to know, but I was sacked even if I had another year left on my contract because with me the system would never have allowed us to win.
In my second campaign, we missed 23 points due to refereeing errors. Those were calculated errors, not like those mistakes that Real Madrid benefited from this week, for example.
When the Sensi family decided to invest – and in my view, too much – they realised that with me Roma could not win. They made a change and I accepted that decision
I mean, where to begin? This is peak bitter old man. They invested too much? What does that even mean? You accepted the decision, then why are you bitching about it 20 years later?
On his second stint:
Everyone considers that a disappointing season, but I thought it was very good. Critics said we played the best football in Italy, especially in wins over Milan and Fiorentina.
I had got us to the Coppa Italia Final, which unfortunately I never got to take part in myself. I don’t regret anything about that campaign, because I thought it went well.
Again, this speaks to the duality of Zeman. Sure, when his methods were taught well and truly inculcated into the team, the results were beautiful: win, lose or draw, you knew Roma would be fun to watch, but at the end of the day, what does that get you? It’s masturbation.
Now onto the coup de gras. Zeman unleashed on the American regime. First in his crosshairs, Monchi:
I do not agree with these decisions...Football in Italy needs to be done by people who have experienced calcio and this very specific way of playing football. Emery got important results with Sevilla, but there are Coaches who do better in certain contexts. Spanish football is different to in Italy, we’d have to see if he could adapt or made the squad adapt to his ideas
I won’t dismiss this one completely out of hand because, if you’re anything like me, this speaks to a deep seated concern about Monchi, or any foreigner who dares venture into Serie A. We saw it with Enrique—for all the highfalutin talk about change, revolution and remaking the face of Italian football, the concept was either too foreign or the patience too thin for it to work, and with Monchi coming from nearly the same school of thought—in the broadest sense—it is a legitimate concern, doubly so if Unai Emery is at the helm. Globalization and everything aside, how much success have non-Italian managers and directors had in this league? Granted, some of that could simply be due to a lack of opportunity, but then we get into a maze of circular logic, but the concerns Zeman raised in this regard are, unfortunately, legitimate.
On the influence of money
Economics are very important in football now. Money isn’t everything, but it is important if you know how to use it. What really counts is having a club with capable directors and a solid organisation. Without that, money is worthless.
If that hadn’t been the case, then English clubs should’ve won everything, seeing as they have more money than any other league, but instead they haven’t won for years and keep European clubs afloat by paying inflated prices for their players.
Can’t really argue with this one either, he’s absolutely correct. For as much as we gripe about the club’s inability to spend top dollar on transfers, they have outpaced their predecessors on the transfer market. The problem has been, as ZZ alluded to, there doesn’t seem to be much cohesion behind that spending; they’re merely patching up cracks or looking for quick fixes, but then again, that’s part of the allure of Monchi—he’s nothing if not directed—so time will tell on this particular critique.
On Uncle Jimmy in particular:
I remember little or nothing about (President James) Pallotta. We met a couple of times, never alone, because I don’t speak English and he doesn’t speak Italian.
The President is in America, the directors in Rome, Franco Baldini in London. A team needs to have the staff close by.
I mean, this is pretty funny—he remembers little or nothing about him! But the broader point, the disconnect between all of Roma’s dozens of executives, is valid.
On comparisons between Roma and Juventus:
Juventus win because they have the organisation and structure that allows them to maintain their best players, and if one does leave, they can replace him with someone even better. Other clubs need to sell and therefore cannot build a project.
It’s difficult for Roma to compete and win if they don’t get the chance to keep and work with their best players. Juve have had a core of 10 players for the last five years. The only ones at Roma after five years are Francesco Totti – who is no longer at his best – Alessandro Florenzi and Daniele De Rossi
Yup, yup, yup. A thousand times yup. While this isn’t an earth shattering insight by any means—we’ve all made this claim a thousand times—it’s nice to see someone on the inside echo our concerns. Roma will never mount a serious challenge to Juventus without a solid base, and with another summer of upheaval on the schedule—in the boardroom, on the sidelines and on the pitch—don’t expect that gap to close next year either.
Love him or hate him, Zeman is much like the cigarettes he smokes: unfiltered, carcinogenic and, to some, delicious.