It was one of those stories that seem too good to be true. Last Friday, 69-year-old Czech coach Zdenek Zeman was handed an apparent “mission impossible” when he was called in to replace Massimo Oddo as coach to Pescara, the bottom team in Serie A. Under Oddo, Pescara have often played some good football this season but their results have been a disaster.
The side that Zeman took over last weekend had gone 24 games this season without a win, lay bottom on nine points and seemed certain to be immediately relegated back down to Serie B. Even those nine points were misleading because three of them had been awarded to Pescara last August after a 2-1 defeat by Sassuolo, a loss that was “falsified” by the fact that Sassuolo had fielded a non-registered player.
Things were indeed not looking good. When Zeman met the media on the eve of his coaching return in a home match against Genoa, he avoided making any promises, saying only: “I am here to see if we can have a bit of fun…”
Then, mirabile dictu, what did the Bohemian do? Why his Pescara went out and played their socks off, recording their first on the field win of the season beating the hapless Genoa 5-0.
It may not mean very much and Pescara will almost certainly not win 5-0 again this season but the inspirational Zeman, for one afternoon at least, had once again worked his magic. In all reality, Pescara still seem almost certain to be relegated. They are still bottom of the table, ten points below fourth from bottom Empoli.
As Zeman himself pointed out on Sunday, Empoli would have to lose practically all their remaining 13 games whilst his side would have to start winning with Juventus-like regularity for them to overtake their rivals and secure Serie A survival. That is the cold hard logic of the day but, of course, football is not all about cold hard logic. Hope is springing eternal again up in Pescara whilst, at the very least, Zeman may well be about to guarantee a certain “dignity” to the end of the Pescara season:
“You can be bottom of the table but you can do so with dignity. It’s important that we enjoy our games even if, mind you, I doubt if we will win many other matches 5-0.” commented the coach on Sunday.
The point about Zeman is that he is something of a talisman coach and not just for Pescara fans. In his career, he has coached big name teams such as Lazio, Roma, Napoli and many others. With his belief in attacking football, his sides have entertained even if their defensive work has often been on the “emotional” side.
He has stuck to his attacking guns, however. Five seasons ago, during a previous spell with Pescara, he guided the team back to Serie A, winning the Serie B title with the sparkling football of players like midfielder Marco Verratti (PSG) and strikers Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) and Ciro Immobile (Lazio).
That season endeared Zeman for ever to the Pescara faithful, even if he then left them next season to return to Roma in Serie A. For other Italians fans, however, Zeman was already an iconic figure not for his football results but rather for his outspoken observations about Italian football.
19 years ago, in the summer of 1998, Zeman prompted the father and mother of a row when he called on football to “get out of the chemist’s laboratory”. In particular, he suggested his surprise about the “muscular explosion” of certain Juventus players. In short, he seemed to be accusing Juventus of systematic doping practices.
His accusations eventually prompted a five year long “Juventus Doping” trial in Turin which in 2007 concluded with the acquittal of the club, the club director Antonio Giraudo and the club doctor Riccardo Agricola. Juventus emerged from the trial with a hard-earned clean record but the case prompted more questions than answers.
How come Juventus had had a medical arsenal which, in the words of presiding Judge Guiseppe Casalbore, was equivalent to “the normal stock of a small sized hospital”? Judge Casalbore also complained about the lack of co-operation from the Juventus players called to give evidence, saying in court:
“The problem here is that we need answers to questions. If all of you come here and sort of talk and then don’t talk at all, it’s all the more alarming. You don’t really think that when you tell us that you don’t know what your team mates are doing in the dressing room, we are going to blindly believe you?…”
Iconic Juventus players such as Alesssandro Del Piero and Gianluca Vialli, summoned to give evidence in the trial, made no bones about their distaste for Zeman and his alleged whistleblowing. Del Piero spoke of the “unacceptable damage” to his reputation whilst Vialli branded Zeman a “terrorist”. As for Juventus fans, they merely concluded that Zeman was expressing an anti-Juventus prejudice, shared by half of Italy.
For what it is worth, when your correspondent talked to Zeman back in that hot summer of 1998, I asked him about the scale of doping practises in Italian football. Zeman thought for a while – he is never a man to say anything in a hurry – and said:
“I don’t know about the size, the dimensions of the problem but I do know that doping practises have been around for years in sports like athletics, swimming, cycling, weight-lifting and so on. Do you really believe that they have not moved into football too?”.
So then, the Whistleblower is back. Watch out for next April, when on Day 32 of the season, Pescara are at home to Juventus. The visiting fans are sure to offer Zeman anything other than a warm welcome.