Wednesday, December 3 rd, 2014
Mission  |   Team  |   Contact Us    
Zdenek Zeman is back to Rome: an endless love/hate story
The Czech coach, now on the bench of Cagliari, will face AS Roma at the Olimpico stadium. His relationship with the Giallorossi fan is complex and really deserves to be told
by Federico Formica
Every time Zdenek Zeman lands in Rome, every time he enters at the Stadio Olimpico and he looks towards the Curva Sud, a complex mechanism made by love, anger, disillusion, utopia and even hate unchains. It has been happening since 1994, when “il Boemo” became the coach of Lazio, the biggest Roma rivals.

And it will happen again next Sunday, when Zeman will lead Cagliari to a very difficult away game against the Giallorossi. Twenty years have past, and many chapters of Zeman's saga have been written in Rome, as a Biancocelesti and as a giallorossi coach. Believe it or not, Roma fans are still split in two factions about the Czech coach.

READ ALSO Ironic, rigorous and down-to-earth: I tell you how the real Zeman is

One is made by dreamers, aesthetes and people strongly sensitive to the charm of a charismatic man; the other one is populated by more cynical and pragmatic fans. The first ones believe that Zeman never had the chance to fully express his potential and show his abilities in Rome and that “strong powers” (which in many Roma fans' minds coincide with Lega Calcio and northern clubs above all) always ostracized him. The latter say that Zeman was simply unfitting for a big club like Roma and that he, basically, failed for his hubris and his extreme tactic credo.

Roma-Cagliari won't be a normal game also for another reason: it was the last match for Zeman as Roma manager in February 2013. In that crazy Friday night, the rossublù side managed to bank three points at the Olimpico stadium with a spectacular 2-4 win. The vast majority of Roma fans remember that night for a freakish and unaccountable error by the Uruguayan keeper Mauro Goicoechea, who Zeman preferred to the Netherlands international Maarten Stekelenburg. Zeman was sacked by the management and left Roma in the eighth place, with a 18 points gap from Juventus and 9 from Lazio, that sat in third in that moment.

Zeman's second spell at Roma ended abruptly after the 23rd matchday. The American management chose him in the previous summer to galvanize the fans, that were still shocked by the failure of Luis Enrique in 2011-2012. The night of Roma-Cagliari was explicative to understand two different moods about Zeman as two banners were exposed. One said “Via il boemo” (“Bohemian, go away”), the other said “Zeman nun se tocca” (“Don't touch Zeman”). Because, after all, a big part of the fans was still grateful to the coach for the two seasons between 1997 and 1999. And, above all, they were grateful for what Zeman said about football, and against Juventus.

Zeman’s first spell in Rome. When the Czech guru became coach of AS Roma in 1997, the mood at Trigoria was very similar to 2011. The Giallorossi came from a disastrous season ended with a 12th place and the sacking of the Argentinian “entrenadorCarlos Bianchi, who even tried to give Francesco Totti on loan to Sampdoria... Six months before his arrival in Rome, Zeman was still Lazio's boss, where he commended two kids called Alessandro Nesta and Pavel Nedved. Have you ever heard about them? That was the main reason why many Roma fans didn't spread a red carpet to welcome him. But it must be said that many Lazio fans chose to support Roma just to follow “il Boemo”. It was the bizarre phenomenon called “zemaniani”, a bunch of die-hard supporters of the spectacular style of play displayed by Zeman's teams. These guys were ready to follow him everywhere. Basically they were nomadic fans: wherever he went, they supported that team.

The first season was absolutely extraordinary: Roma fans could enjoy the game, sure that their team would have faced each opponent with their head held high, playing a brave football. The Giallorossi ended fourth, they qualified for the UEFA Cup and had the best attack in Serie A with 67 goals (almost a 2 goals per game rate). Zeman had a huge role in Totti's growing as he gave him confidence and under his management (in the 1998-99), he became “il Capitano” and started to wear the armband.

The 1998 summer was a milestone for Zeman's story. It's impossible to understand his relationship with Roma fans and Italian calcio in general without knowing what he said in those hot days: “Football has to exit from pharmacies and finance offices” adding that Del Piero and Vialli's muscles had grown in a strange way in the last years. “I was convinced that such muscular explosions could be achieved after years of bodybuilding and specific work”. In other words, Zeman said and repeated many other times that Calcio had a problem: doping. And that Juventus – whose winning cycle under Marcello Lippi had just ended – was a case it was worthwhile investigating.

Zeman received an unconditional support in his battle from Roma fans. But that battle was not an easy one to fight, as Roma players – and their coach obviously- began to be insulted in many stadia, let alone Turin. But the majority of the Giallorossi supporters were convinced that Juventus's wins were not clean. Zeman and the president Franco Sensi lamented that the “system” started to boicot AS Roma sending many unfavourable referees. It must be said that in the previous season Juventus won one of the most contested titles ever, as in a decisive match against Inter – the main contender– the referee Piero Ceccarini helped the Bianconeri with some extremely controversial decisions. By the way, Roma ended in fifth place, just one point and one place below Parma, a position that would have sent Roma to the Champions League.

At the end of that poisoned season Roma president Franco Sensi said that “it was time to win” and decided to say goodbye to Zeman. The new coach was Fabio Capello, but that's another story.

Don Fabio inherited from Zeman the backbone of the team that would have won the 2001 Scudetto: Aldair and Zago as centre-backs, Cafù (a player Zeman strongly insisted to have in the squad) and Candela as full-backs; Eusebio Di Francesco, Damiano Tommasi, Francesco Totti and Marco Delvecchio. All players whose story would have been incredibly different had they not met Zeman on their way.

Now it's September 2014 and Zeman is back to Rome. How will Roma fans receive him? Another chapter of this endless story is about to be written.

Saturday, September 20 th, 2014
For discussion of this topic and many more about Serie A, join R/ItalianFootball