Skip navigation
Crystal palace

      Zaha reveals motivation to 'give back love' through Ivorian football club


      In an interview with Forbes' Robert Kidd, Crystal Palace talisman Wilfried Zaha opened up on international football with the Ivory Coast, online abuse and his charitable work. Here, we republish the interview in full.

      Returning to the country of his birth for the first time in 20 years, Wilfried Zaha wasn’t expecting such a warm welcome.

      It was October, 2017, and the Crystal Palace player had flown to Abidjan, in Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire), West Africa. As he entered the airport building, he was mobbed by fans who had waited to welcome him.

      “The first time I went back, there was genuine love I was getting and I had done virtually nothing,” Zaha tells me in an exclusive interview.

      “There were thousands of people waiting for me at the airport. It was ridiculous! I’d just decided to come back and play for Ivory Coast. I didn’t know how happy they were that I’d decided to play for my country.”

      Zaha is one of a relatively small number of professional soccer players to have represented two nations at international level. The first country he represented, England, will play at the World Cup finals starting on November 20th. Ivory Coast will not.

      Zaha was four when his family moved from Ivory Coast to south London and he represented England at youth levels. He briefly appeared in two friendly matches for the senior England team, the second of which was in August, 2013. Having been overlooked for future squads, Zaha decided to represent Ivory Coast in November, 2016.

      “I had my ups and downs with England at the time and obviously Ivory Coast came and spoke to me and the space where I was at, I just thought: ‘I think it’s best I play for Ivory Coast,’” he says.

      “Before my mindset was playing for England, I grew up here. But even through those years, the Ivorian people still supported me through everything. They still showed me love. So when that came about and the space I was in, I just thought: ‘This is the time.’

      “I feel like it’s paved the way for a few other players … there are so many now who decide to play for their home country, so it’s nice to see.”

      FIFA rules allow multinational players aged 21 and over to change the country they represent, providing their appearances for the first nation were in non-competitive fixtures.

      There are several reasons a player with a multinational background chooses to represent one country over the others for which they are eligible. They may choose the nation where they grew up, that they know best. They might want to represent the place where they were born or the homeland of their mother or father. It could come down to their relationship with the coach or other players.

      Zaha, who has previously been subjected to racist abuse online, remembers the “hate” he received after his decision to play for Ivory Coast was made public.

      “People who watch football, just don't tend to see us footballers… as human,” he says.

      “There are still the odd messages saying if I was still with England I’d be playing all the time now. But then there’s the other thousands that say the reason why I don’t play for England is because I chickened out or I’m not good enough.

      “That’s the same old stuff. It’s the same old hate.”

      Was it, perhaps, hard for some people of single nationality to understand a player can feel a connection to two countries at once? That someone might feel both Ivorian and English at the same time?

      “I just realised not everyone’s capable of understanding these things,” Zaha says.

      “There are so many players who play for one country but you see how they’re heavily invested in where they were born. I see it all the time. There’s nothing wrong with it, people make their choices.

      “People have different reasons why they play for certain national teams. Playing for your home country [outside Europe], there are not as many opportunities as playing for a European country.

      “With African countries, we’re improving slowly. We’re not at the stage of England where everything is top notch – first-class flights, first-class hotels, all of these things. I’ve said publicly there is stuff I want to change with the African mentality where if you want to be the best, you need to provide the best for the football players that you have, which other countries do.

      “People have different reasons why they play but my choice was just to face that head on and go and play for my country.”

      The 2017 trip to Ivory Coast made a big impact. Zaha, who has given 10% of his salary to charity since signing his first professional contract, established a foundation that funds an orphanage in Ivory Coast run by his sister. The Zaha Foundation also supports widows and other community and development projects for young people in the country and, Zaha says, he is planning to do more.

      In the UK, he supports charitable causes including a south London soccer academy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he offered free accommodation to staff from the UK’s National Health Service.

      His latest project is a fourth division, semi-pro soccer club in Ivory Coast which Zaha has bought with his brother, Carin. The plan for Espoir Club D’Abengourou, based in the capital Yamoussoukro, is to offer opportunities for young players.

      Wilfried Zaha | Coming Home: A Palace TV production from the Ivory Coast

      “Going back to my country just opened up my eyes to a lot of things to be thankful for,” Zaha, who is working with The MailRoom agency to help promote his charitable projects, says.

      “I just wanted to invest back in my country. I was thinking of different possibilities to help and when my brother came to me with the football club opportunity, it just made me think: ‘Imagine all the aspiring kids that are watching me that want that same opportunity.’

      “So if you do well you get an opportunity to thrive and you can end up playing for my club. There are so many people who want to play and there’s just not many opportunities.

      “I just thought: ‘The love I’m getting, let me see if I can give it back somehow.’”

      A fast and skilful attacker, Zaha is one of the Premier League’s most exciting players. Many believe he would have been a valuable addition to England’s World Cup squad. England manager Gareth Southgate previously met with Zaha in an effort to convince him to stick with England but, by then, Zaha’s mind was made up.

      Ivory Coast has qualified for the World Cup three times – in 2006, 2010 and 2014. It narrowly missed out in 2018 and again this year.

      Zaha, who turns 30 later this month, has maybe one more chance to play on international soccer’s biggest stage.

      “I’ve made my bed now, I’ve got to deal with it. There’s no regrets at all,” he says.

      “I’d love to be a player that features in the World Cup, what player wouldn’t? But that’s where we are at right now and we’re fighting to be a team that makes it there.”

      If there is any bitterness, any thoughts of what might have been, Zaha hides it well.

      “100%!” he says when asked if he plans to watch the World Cup on television.

      “What on earth am I going to be doing if I’m not watching the World Cup?”

      With thanks to Forbes for their permission to republish the above feature. You can find it on their website here.