Another Football

The end of the serie A season has done as much to remind us as any period in recent years what a wretched place it can be. Two of the country's most powerful clubs are bickering about a star and goal line technology with all the immaturity of preschool children. No, serie B is where it’s happening right now: there, teams pull crowds, upset odds and perform small miracles of engineering.

As the season draws to a close, we note that Zdenek Zeman sits near the top. His comeback to relevance has been a unifier, a topic of both conversation and admiration among football fans.  Zeman’s Pescara has won more games than anyone else, scored more goals than anyone else, and with a healthy margin: Pescara has scored almost 40% more goals than league leaders Torino. The two play on Saturday in a game which will do plenty to decide who gets the automatic promotion spot, which is reason enough to tune in. Need more persuasion? The last time the two played, Torino won 4-2 and Pescara lined up like this at every kick-off:



Not that it was a desperate approach by any degree: Pescara does that relatively often, in plenty of games. Insane? Yes, but you have to wonder what the defending team thinks upon seeing eight players attack from the get-go. You have to second-guess yourself just a little bit, don't you?

Zeman’s success is testament to his vision, a football virtually identical to that with which he made a name for himself more than two decades ago. The only explanation is that his style has one foot twenty years into the past, the other one twenty years into the future (a phrase so good it had to come from the genii Lacrime di Borghetti). In the rapid evolvement of football as a sport—leaps and bounds since 2000 alone—this shouldn’t be possible. It’s like Star Wars being re-released today with its original special effects and still making an impact on the public, even amidst saturation of transformers, avengers and impossible missions with implausible plots. A byproduct of having the same philosophy you did 20, 30 years ago shouldn't only be that methods become ineffective due to rule changes or tactical shifts in opposing teams, logically you would think you'd have a hard time finding players in the same mold. As the game changes, so does its practitioners. Not necessarily over the course of a single player's career, but in the case of Zeman who's seen generations of careers come and go, surely? Yet in this Pescara team he has recreated his old Foggia, his old lazio, his old Roma. Ciro Immobile, despite the unfortunate name (upon meeting him for the first time, Zeman rued his luck: "What have I done, getting a striker with your name?") is the incarnation of Zeman's ideal attacking focal point. Around, behind and in front of him, Insigne and Caprari or Sansovini move with fleet of foot, overwhelming defenses put under duress. Part of the answer lies in Zeman's preference for young players, still moldable into his vision. Today's youngsters may have it easy, Zeman has said, because they earn small fortunes and can spend all their time outside of the training pitch on Facebook. But paradoxically he has it easier exerting his authority on them now, with the much richer players of today: his age is the only thing not to remain ostensibly frozen in time, his charisma as the old sage apparently growing with every new forehead wrinkle. 

But there is one difference from the last time he was in the limelight: when he’s mentioned now, his name is spoken with affection and reverence, not spit out between clenched teeth. Zeman has found a way back from his exile, he has reversed the damnatio memoriae issued by some of his more famous colleagues. (Let's name names: Marcello Lippi, Gianluca Vialli, Luciano Moggi, etc.) He has gone from being at best forgotten, at worst mocked and ridiculed, to becoming most people’s second favorite coach (although Gianluca Vialli is still not a fan, seemingly). His success and improbable wins are today discussed heartily by football fans of all colors. His name has become an adjective, zemaniano, denoting an appreciation of il Boemo. (Full disclosure: it is one of only three adjectives this writer would use to describe himself.)
          This is not because he cuts a universal figure, easy to identify with. He has a stubborn way of sticking to his guns which most people, even his most ardent admirers, are probably too pragmatic to embrace in full in life. Wherever he has gone, he has been considered slightly odd and exotic. In his early career when he hampered around the south of Italy he stood apart as the mute, for his economizing of words. His long pauses before answering questions are characteristic of his entire persona, entirely impervious to stress according to himself ("At Coverciano", the headquarters and training centre of the Italian FA, "they had us coaches take stress tests. I scored a zero, the others 11 or 12. I don't know what stress is".) Asked if he speaks—or doesn't, as it were—with his wife in the same way when she asks him something, he said: "She has to wait". A journalist covering Pescara this season, Luca Prosperi, likened him to the eponymous character of the 1971 work Un marziano a Roma (A Martian in Rome) by one of the city's most famous sons, Ennio Flaiano. In it, the sometimes screenwriter, journalist, writer and film critic wrote that "the worst thing that could happen to a genius is to be understood even before saying 'a'". Perhaps that is why Zeman holds off for so long,  resisting misinterpretation for as long as possible.
          Yet despite this ostensible alienation, Zeman's eternal state of being the odd man out, or like an Martian in Rome, his name has not only become an adjective. It has also borrowed itself to a place: Zemanlandia. Originally coined for the Foggia which made him and which he made, it has since become a term applied to all places he has gone to coach. Had he not been (mis)understood prematurely, we would find a man perfectly in his element, perfectly happy to experience first hand the joy and excitement his team's football conjures in the city's citizens. 
 
A few years ago, when he seemed to by forgotten by all but a few and spending all his time on the golf links, it was easy to lose faith. It was within reach to say that football without Zeman would fundamentally have been the same as it is with him. He has always fought more or less alone on his own, his methods and approach dismissed with a figurative pat on the head. 4-3-3 in the way he sees it has never caught on in any grand fashion in Italy. Even without that sort of impact, his legacy stands today stronger than ever: he enthuses crowds, shoots season ticket sales through the roof. And now we he wins, too. If you care about that sort of thing.