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Saturday April 11 2020
Zeman's Bohemian Rhapsody

Football Italia Chief Correspondent Richard Hall looks back on Zdenek Zeman’s time at Foggia, one of Serie A’s greatest games, and assesses the Czech’s philosophy.

It was real life, but many remember it as fantasy. For some time, Italian football was caught in a landslide of the same style of football. Zdenek Zeman was an escape from reality, that is true, but we do not always remember him as we should. The Czech coach was certainly ahead of his time, he definitely was an entertaining influence, as the nickname Zemanlandia was meant to turn his Foggia team into a theme park, you were just along for the ride.

“A 0-0 is boring. It is better to lose 5-4, at least it gives you some excitement”

Zdenek Zeman

‘Il Boemo’ The Bohemian, was an apt nickname. A novel could be written about his time at each club, the players he introduced, and certainly on his flaws. It was his time at Foggia that really encapsulated his vision.

The Zeman family moved to Sicily from Prague in 1968, to spend time with his uncle, former Juventus, Parma and Palermo player, Cestmir Vycpalek. He had now moved into coaching and Zeman, who was no footballer, decided to follow in his footsteps. It was whilst obtaining his coaching licence at Italy’s famous Coverciano that Zeman met Arrigo Sacchi, another idealist with no football background as such. One can only imagine the two, smoking, drinking wine, discussing philosophies and the new world of football like some 19th century revolutionists in the cafes of Europe.

What came about certainly revolutionised the way many people looked at Italian football. The ‘all guns blazing’ style that both Sacchi and Zeman employed caught Calcio off guard. The pressing, speed, intensity and endurance was hard to play against. The fact that neither coach would allow their teams to ease off if 2-0 up at half time, that they would play 90 minutes going for the jugular, meant scorelines became unusually high. Zeman and Sacchi differed however, the latter refining his art and making sure that there was harmony between defence and attack, the former caring little for such dull pursuits as balance.

Zeman had spent time at Licata before Foggia, although after less than a season he replaced Sacchi at Parma. This didn’t work out and perhaps is one of the most telling signs of how the coaches differed. He went to Messina and enjoyed a glorious season where he launched Salvatore Schillaci onto the scene before returning to Foggia.

Many remember Zeman for two reasons. One was his complete disregard for results, which is why he did not fear the sack. He simply didn’t care, as he had a vision of how football should be played and that was that. The second is the football itself, when it worked, the 4-3-3 and continual surges of attacking players that ultimately lead to goals. That is how the memory works, but realistically most of us remember these games not for the quality of Zeman’s teams, but because they often ended 4-4, 3-2, 5-3 or in the next case 2-8. The Czech’s teams were ultimately terrible defensively, had a shocking disciplinary record, while his tactics and substitutions boggled the mind.

It is the last day or the season in 1991-92, Milan under Fabio Capello are champions and still unbeaten. Arrigo Sacchi is in the stands looking very cool, he is here to watch his friend play against the side he created and then left. Zeman had kept his Foggia side up this year, his offensive system had overawed many and he wasn’t in the mood for changing. As previously mentioned, Italian sides did not often ‘kill’ other teams once the game was won, but the fact Zeman didn’t apply those rules meant the gloves were off.

It was brave, that’s for sure. Sebastiano Rossi, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, the three flying Dutchmen, Roberto Donadoni, I could go on. Zeman though had his own stars, as Igor Shalimov, Giuseppe Signori, Francesco Baiano, Dan Petrescu and Roberto Rambaudi were just some who would go on to have great careers.

The 22,835 spectators would witness a spectacle, although most in the Stadio Pino Zaccheria would leave disappointed. Zeman would attack from the off and what is notable about the footage is the amount of Foggia shirts in every attack, seven, eight, even 10 at one point. This shocked Milan, nervous about the unbeaten record. The early goal from Paolo Maldini didn’t help and they found themselves 2-1 down at the break curtesy of Baiano and Signori. The second half proved why Zeman was fallible; he did not take his team’s foot off the gas. Foggia became tired, it had been a long season with intensive training, they gave away vital set pieces. Still they attacked and they were found out. Gullit, Van Basten, an own goal, Marco Simone twice, Van Basten again, Diego Fuser, 2-8. Milan had done it and the pitch invasion after showed the relief.

This was Zemanlandia, yes, his teams played great offensive football at times, but they were chaotic, would not defend and were often tired. The matches we remember were not just because they played a fluid attacking game we couldn’t take our eyes off, it was because there were so many goals from both sides. This was peak Zeman, but I would not change a bit of it, and ultimately neither would he.

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Have your say...
Nice article. It is true that he didn't win any trophies. But do you think that these days, reminiscing about his coaching years over a cigarette and a cappuccino, he has any regrets? I just don't see it.

It's also interesting to notice that he spent his whole career in the Italian south, with two exceptions at Parma and Brescia (both short-lived, too). But the south is so religiously devoted, and he is a football prophet. A perfect match.
on the 5th May, 2020 at 9:10am
He was a good coach as a LAZIO FAN i liked his attacking style but the thing is you can't play like that all the time in some cases it's best to change tactics like slowing the game down or play defensive. I believe Zeman would have maybe won trophies as a coach if he had a PLAN B option which doesn't mean playing attacking football.
on the 11th April, 2020 at 8:08pm

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