The Obituary Column: Farewell, Zdeněk Zeman
Cagliari may have closed the gates to Zemanlandia for the final time.
And so, Zdeněk Zeman has been sacked by Cagliari. The only surprise is that it took this long. From his hiring in the summer, the question was not if, but when. His time at the Sardinian club will go down in history as an inconsequential six-month fling; indistinguishable from almost all of the posts he’s held since he rocked up in Sicily to escape the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia almost half a century ago.
To his critics, Zeman has made an entire career off a couple of brief successes: namely the remarkable rise of his Foggia team from the third tier to Serie A from the late 1980s, and the brief resurgence he had when he led Pescara to the top flight a couple of years ago. And with that, it’s hard to really disagree. His late tenure at Cagliari — who he leaves in Serie A’s relegation zone — was the 19th different managerial spell of his career. He’s managed in almost half of Italy’s 20 different regions from Lombardy down to Sicily, alongside typically short experiences in Turkey and Serbia. Rarely has he lasted more than a few months.
But to his fans, Zeman is a revolutionary: a pioneer of football who played his part in Italian football’s zenith in the 1990s, and who at least attempted to reshape Italy’s image as a backwater of cynical catenaccio to one of exciting, progressive football with his notoriously offensive playing style. After all, few professional coaches have films dedicated to them.
For those unacquainted with Zeman’s tactics, he likes his teams to attack at all cost. His — admittedly unconventional — logic is that the more players they push forward, the deeper his opponents will be forced, eventually put under such underwhelming pressure that they’ll buckle. And as such, he likes his teams to line up along the halfway line at kickoff, in perhaps the most incredible example of his tactical innovation:
— Manazery.net (@Manazerynet) September 29, 2014
However, describing Zeman as a revolutionary has a flaw. Successful revolutionaries tend to have a lasting impact in their field; their ideas serving to force radical reevaluations, if not actual material change. Revolutionaries whose ideas don’t stick are probably being oversold. They’re quite possibly just oddballs. And, in short, that is probably the best way to describe Zeman. A loveable, hilarious oddball. There is quite simply no one else in Europe’s top football divisions doing what he does. And that is at once a damning indictment and a shining commendation of his career.
To be sure, the first thing that comes to mind when Zeman is mentioned certainly isn’t fun, at least not for his former players. The grizzled Zeman has the aura of an old-school PE teacher, and an article from his tenure at Napoli from the summer of 2000 tells of how he sent his players along the “path of war,” with their pre-season preparations involving an interminable, undulating run through the Aosta Valley in which midfielder Matuzalém eventually gave up, claiming that he’d never run so much in his life.
He does have an entertaining side away from the football field, as described in a great interview with the director of the aforementioned film, Giuseppe Sansonna. In it he tells of Zeman’s great love of cards, and a moment from when he was still coaching in Sicily and caught a couple of his players still playing when they should’ve been tucked up in bed. Zeman promptly pulled up a seat and played on until dawn, only to fine both players and himself the following day.
Even if fun isn’t the right way to describe Zeman, perhaps funny is. In the rare moments that his weird and wonderful methods pay off, the football is brilliant. But when they don’t, it’s hilarious watching him press on regardless, always wearing his contempt for the defensive revisionism of his peers as a badge of honour. Things rarely go his way, but Zeman never changes. And while all hell breaks loose around him, he sits as unperturbed as ever, and takes another drag on his cigarette.
Alas, it is a pleasure that we may never get to enjoy again. He has freely admitted before that football is no longer his “world,” and at 67 years old, retirement may not be too far around the corner. If Cagliari really have closed the gates to Zemanlandia for the final time, let us rejoice at having caught a glimpse of a quite absurdly brilliant career. To measure Zeman’s success trophies in his cabinet would be to miss the point. Football is entertainment, and Zeman is a master of the art.