Zaha zooms into media spotlight
Already, I fear for Wilfried Zaha. By being named in the England senior squad, for the friendly against Sweden in Stockholm tonight, he has also been simultaneously and inevitably thrust into the spotlight of the national – and international – media. And just hours after his call-up, already, he has had problems.
Zaha plays for Crystal Palace, the Championship club. In itself, that is a novelty. Eminently newsworthy in a quiet week, now to be magnified to the full. That he also qualifies for Ivory Coast, the place of his birth and even after appearances for England Under-19s and Under-21s, is a complication enough. Who, eventually, will he commit to?
But in various interviews published in national UK newspapers yesterday, in which he emerged as a confident, articulate and enlightening just-turned 20-year-old, the flak came cascading down on him. Zaha’s words, interpreted by certain outlets as “I’m bettered only by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo”, were misinterpreted, he claimed on an immediate Twitter response.
Who do you believe? “My words were absolutely twisted,” Wilfried choked, indignantly. “My interview wasn’t me trying to be arrogant.” And when you consider that one of the interviewers was a fervent Palace-supporting journo, you do wonder if it was not the scribe but his sensation-seeking desk that concocted the attention-grabbing headline that veered away from the truth.
But England manager Roy Hodgson, the most genuine and non-controversial of football folk, added fuel to the fire by later stating, apparently, to the BBC – yes, that font of all factual knowledge – that Zaha had revealed to him that “He’s told me that’s what he wants to do”. In other words, he wants to play for England, not the Cote d’Ivoire.
Oh dear. A rabbit in headlights comes to mind. Zaha, a startled young buck even, transfixed by the glare of oncoming traffic and unable to decide whether to stand still or run. Either way, he could get clipped or worse. And where is the advice, the guiding light of the agent who has nurtured the prodigy, the potential cash cow, from his teens? Nowhere, it would seem; at least, in no place in which he can be effective. Just when he is needed the most.
I find that naive, pathetic and utterly representative of an agent out of his depth, let alone the poor young player.
Yet, somehow, so typical in football. I’ve interviewed many up-and-coming youngsters, long before they should have had any media attention at all, and it has mostly been a painful experience – for them and me. Most have little to say and, if they did, they would not know how to express it. Not necessarily their fault, just the way it is.
My worst ever sit-down was with a Midlands tyro, an essentially nice lad on the brink of superstar status, who turned up at the training ground with his agent, his sponsors’ PRO and the club PRO. OMG … what chance did I have? I was constantly watched over by these three hawks, all wanting to jump in and object should I dare to ask a dodgy question. And they did.
I kid you not, my initial 20 questions received little more than three to four minutes of responses. Monosyllabic was the best he could muster. And yet I had been asked to write a 700-word article in a little less than three hours’ time for the edition the next day. Did panic set in? You bet it did.
Especially when I thought I had cracked it. His father had an unsual profession and, I gently enquired, what did that entail and where did he work? And, yes … he didn’t know. He couldn’t remember. So a possible decent angle into the story died a quick death. Young players, don’t you just love ‘em? Er, not really.
Wilfried Zaha has it all coming to him. Multitalented though he might be, revered my many and coveted by the mega clubs, he could rise to the ranks of Messi or Ronaldo or fade away and be frazzled like a moth in a night-time insect trap. Already, he will have learnt the difference between the relative obscurity of Selhurst Park and the international microscope.
Whether he chooses England or Ivory Coast, Palace or Man Utd or the path to stardom or oblivion, you can only wish him well.