In defence of Wilfried Zaha: England’s lost talent

Ben Mountain

We don’t really know it, but we have a few jobs in our role as football fans. And one of these is that of passing judgement over the players we pay to watch. But sometimes we do this job just slightly too often. A prime example lies in the crucifying of Wilfried Zaha.

Imagine the thought: after years of failure and inadequacy on the international stage and seeing hoards of talented footballers not live up to their tags, a fresh-faced South Londoner steps onto the scene; ambitious and confident in his footballing ability.

As a country, we rejoice – hell, it happens every season – you’ve read the ‘next ten youngsters to save England’s future’ articles as much as everyone else.

But then – shock horror – one of these youngsters actually gets a bit good. He starts turning out to be quite the footballer. Hmm, football’s coming home next year, surely…

Only he doesn’t play for a Premier League outfit. Bugger. Let’s overlook the lad, then.

But he won’t let you. He keeps causing a stir, turning heads and raising eyebrows. Finally, the country’s biggest club come knocking for him.

Now we’re listening. Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson have labelled this particular youngster as good enough to be worth £10million. Nod your head and agree, thoughtless football fan. SAF has said it. It must be right. Expect the next Neymar to have been raised in Croydon.

Give him another* England call-up, Roy, you old cretin! We’ve been saying it for goddam years. He’s a United star!

*For the record, this young chap already had an England cap, but he was in the Championship at the time. So, naturally, it didn’t count.

Anyway, throw in some made up tabloid allegations (from the usual brain-polluting culprits), a weak Scottish manager and a handful of overpaid, under-worked pundits and you’ve found yourself a recipe for abuse. Lovely. Let’s all turn on him. He’s failing.

So, from being a promising youngster in need of some guidance and opportunity, to the nation’s Public Enemy Number One. Quite the fall from grace, even if we are exaggerating a little.

So what did this once nation-saving youngster do to earn such a fall? Don’t look at us.

Wilfried Zaha, the victim in this story if you hadn’t already guessed, had been playing his football well and with passion throughout the whole saga. If anything, he’d been getting better and better.

Though after having spent three years being ignored for the England squad, he’d had enough.

Playing in his prime – earning player of the season twice consecutively for Crystal Palace – Zaha knew he was good enough to be on the international stage. And he was right.

And so, in 2016, Zaha wrote to change his footballing allegiance and made the switch over to the Ivory Coast.

Cue crowds of thick, EDL-types brandishing St George’s flags, sixteen pints of Stella and a bulldog. It’s a honour to play for your country, innit?

Well, the country in question had consistently overlooked one of its finest young talents and still performed in a way that was tantamount to winning sod all.

Gareth Southgate did little to help.

“If you don’t feel that internal 100% passion for England, then I’m not sure it’s for me to sell that to you. It should be your desire to do it. Although I’m always willing to sit down with players, it should be them coming to us.”

It’s almost as if playing in the form of your life isn’t enough to get a call-up from Gareth ‘Rule Britannia’ Southgate. He’s a very demanding patriot. Hence his inclusions of Jake Livermore, Jesse Lingard and Kieran Trippier in the national side. Oh, and that penalty at Euro ’96.

But, no, Zaha moved. And now he’s playing regular international football. What a selfish fella.

Skip forward to the very present moment and Wilfried Zaha is probably sitting in a doctor’s room somewhere in Asia, nursing the various disfigurements his legs are currently suffering.

After a completely insignificant game against Tony ‘Die-Hard’ Pulis‘ West Bromwich Albion side, Zaha was absolutely torn to shreds by the wrestler-cum-footballers he humiliated.

Skip back again to last season and pretty much every game he played saw the same thing happen. Players would routinely crowd Zaha in twos or threes and hack away at him until he was forced to the deck. And when he inevitably hit it, these players would skip over to one deluded ref or the next and plea with him that the nasty man dived.

Zaha finished the season as the most fouled player in the entire Premier League, despite spending January playing in the African Cup of Nations. International football, that is, Gareth.

And yet we still lambast him; he’s a cheat, a diver, a mummy’s boy who needs to man up. People queue up to take shots at the 24-year-old. So much so that a little core of fans up in the North have taken to racially abusing him. As if we didn’t leave that sort of rubbish back in the 80s.

The sort of moronic writers (not us, mind you) and pundits that fill our papers do little to quell this attitude, however.

Take Alan Shearer, who writes for the Sun (immoral, we know). Or John Cross, of the Daily Mirror. Both equally weighted in their levels of ignorance.

The former stated that Zaha’s stats were “not good enough” and the latter said that the belligerent and persistent fouling in the aforementioned West Brom game was just “Picking on poor Wilfie”. Note the sarcasm.

What a patronising *fill in the blank where we can’t swear*.

Last season, Zaha managed seven goals and nine assists from 35 games. Even, as we said, having been the most fouled player in the league. We don’t see those stats as “not good enough”, Mr Shearer.

For comparison, Jesse Lingard managed a goal and two assists in 25 matches. But Lingard is the absolute saviour of mankind. One that wasn’t fouled as much, may we add.

Anyway, balding pundits and personal dislikes aside, Zaha is a class footballer. He could quite easily make the England set-up today and still plays very comfortably in the Premier League; with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Arsenal all having shown their interests in signing the lad.

But we wrote him off long ago. We’re far too confident in our reception of him as some sort of cocky, diving and lazy cheat to consider his talents now.

We’ve simply gone too far.

So, whilst we chastise Zaha for all of the above and more, he doesn’t seem to be listening. Which is a shame, because if he were; it might affect his game.

And then we wouldn’t be so fuming that he’s not playing for the country.

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