This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Sunderland matchday programme - 4th February 2017.
“I want an international career”
It was always going to be a tough decision, but Wilfried Zaha has got what he wanted. After deciding to switch his international allegiance from England to the Ivory Coast, the Eagles winger is hoping to now make a belated mark on the world stage for club and country.
Good things happen to those who wait, and so that’s exactly what Wilfried Zaha did. For the past few years, he waited for a phonecall or email confirming his selection in the latest England squad, hoping to recapture the glorious feeling of being selected for his country that he first experienced back in November 2012.
But it never happened. Despite a miserable 2014 World Cup, it seemed that Roy Hodgson was happy to keep the status quo leading up to Euro 2016, which again ended in disaster. It was thought that Gareth Southgate, with his previous Palace affiliation and having managed him at under-21 level, might open the door during his caretaker reign but once again Zaha’s phone was lacking in notifications from the FA despite some fantastic form for the Eagles.
It seemed that no matter what he did in red and blue shirt, Zaha was never going to be able to replicate it in all white, but earlier this month he made a decision that would make that a reality once again – albeit without Three Lions on his chest.
While the 24-year-old is the epitome of the club’s South London and Proud mantra, he originally arrived in the area as a four-year-old from the Ivory Coast. For years, the Elephants’ high brass had been trying to coax Zaha to represent the country of his birth rather than the one of his upbringing, but being fast-tracked from the England under-19s to the senior squad within three years, it seemed that a long association with these shores would make their efforts futile.
But having won both of his full caps in friendly – or noncompetitive – matches, Zaha still hadn’t officially been tied down to a national side, and despite Southgate’s last-ditch attempts to dissuade the Eagles’ number 11, the Elephants finally got their man. It’s a situation you feel that Zaha would have liked to avoid, but he is satisfied with one of his biggest career choices.
“It’s been four years since I was picked for England and I feel that I’ve played well in that time,” he said. “I know I can do a lot more goals-wise and I should be getting a lot more assists too, but over the seasons I was doing that here and there and playing well enough to be in and around the England squad, but I wasn’t getting a sniff.
“The Ivory Coast, my country, have been chasing me for years and I want an international career. I don’t want one where I’ll come on for a few minutes or only picked in the squad. I have goals in my life such as playing in a World Cup and winning things and I don’t want to be overlooked by a player that’s at a bigger club than me. No matter what I did, it felt like I wouldn’t get picked, so I’ve done it to have a better international career.
“Didier Drogba spoke to me as well as [Salomon] Kalou years ago but I turned it down because I had come to England when I was four and hadn’t been back to the Ivory Coast, so I wanted to try my luck with England as it’s where I had lived and grown up. That didn’t go well and people may say that I’ve taken the easy route but the Ivory Coast have many players that play in Europe for good teams, so it’s not.”
So after FIFA granted the switch, Zaha was named in Michel Dussuyer’s squad for the tournament in Gabon, and after signing off from Palace with a splendid scissor kick goal against Swansea City a month ago, he ventured into the unknown.
Fortunately for Zaha, he would be able to get to know the setup and his new teammates in a training camp in Abu Dhabi, where they would play two warm-up matches. You could forgive Zaha for feeling a sense of déjà vu as he pulled on an all-white strip and took the field for the first time as a representative of his homeland against Sweden – the same opposition that he had faced on his England bow four years previous – although in his typical laid-back nature, when prompted about this quirk of fate, he replied: “I didn’t actually think about that to be honest until now!”
A maiden international goal followed against Uganda a few days later before the tournament got underway, but for the defending champions it ended in calamity as they were eliminated at the group stage following draws against Togo and DR Congo before defeat to Morocco sealed their fate. Dussuyer has since departed, but with a youthful squad in transition following the international retirements of Drogba and Yaya Toure, their latest star man is confident that they can continue their good start to their World Cup qualifying campaign and help him achieve an ambition he never thought possible.
On his experiences last month, he said: “When I went there everyone was cool so I linked in nicely. With the Ivory Coast everyone was joking around together, while with England everyone was a bit more serious. Maybe because the team was younger everyone was trying to have a laugh and make people feel welcome, and I think anyone would prefer that. It’s not that England didn’t make me feel welcome but it’s a different vibe.
“Many of the players hadn’t played together so the team probably needs more time to gel. It was also my first time meeting the players so they don’t know my qualities, and it’s difficult to not know those things and then play at a tournament against teams that have been together for years.
“I’m 24 and I’ve got the opportunity to go to a World Cup, and things like that is what I want in my career. I could never have dreamed of going to a World Cup, so that’s a great opportunity.”
With his international career now set in stone, Zaha has returned to the Eagles probably earlier than expected, but due to his form so far this campaign not a moment too soon. With four goals and seven assists to his name – including a run of five consecutive games where he created a goal – he is once again showcasing the scintillating displays that earned him that first England cap when he was still a Championship player.
The last few months have seen him produce his best for at the highest level of English football, and you feel as though there is much more still to come. With a maturity developing in his game which has seen some of the showboating shaved off in preference for a simpler and more effective pass, coupled with a composed nature in front of goal, a fired-up Zaha has been ramming some of his fiercest critics’ words back down their throats.
On his form this season, he assessed: “The stuff I do means nothing if I don’t score or don’t assist, so my personal goal was to score and create more goals, so I’m happy. Something I’ve tried to work on is my technique when I strike the ball and not rush things.
Over time, I’ve realised that when I get near the goal, I just see flashing lights and I think I’ve already scored, so I’ve managed to slow down and hit the ball better. I’m also trying to work on my movement because nowadays there’s better defenders and you can’t just get past people by doing skills or tricks.
“What I’ve learnt from the AFCON is that you have to be mentally prepared and not let any obstacle stop you. If the pitch is going to be bad, you have to tell yourself that I have to play well on it, no matter what I do. You just have to overcome all these things; this was my first time so it was hard but in the future I’ll get through it.”
His improvement is in no doubt from those Palace fans who have watched him develop from a boy wearing a shirt two or three sizes too big for him when he made his debut as a 17-year-old back in 2010, into one of the Premier League’s most recognisable faces. However, he admits that he still suffers from a lack of confidence from time to time, but his involvement in 11 league goals this season is helping allay his worries.
“Being able to get an assist or a goal is always going to bring confidence, and I’m just trying to keep that running because I’m a confidence-based player,” Zaha revealed. “Five minutes into a game, if I have a good touch or do something decent, that sets me up for a good game, but if I start by having a couple of bad touches, in my head I’m thinking: ‘oh my god, what am I doing?’
“It took me a couple of years to get settled properly [in the Premier League] but this season is probably the first one where I’ve played pretty much every minute of every game, and not come off the bench or been taken off – it’s just me getting a straight run. I’ve been given an opportunity and I’ve shown that I can cope.”
Modest as always, Zaha is more than coping. Now his stats are beginning to back up his dazzling displays, it could well be the case that England’s loss is the Ivory Coast’s – and indeed Palace’s – gain.