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  • Writer's pictureSimon Basten

Manager Series: Zdenek Zeman

There is a lot to say on Zdenek Zeman. The manager who never changed his 4-3-3 formation no matter what (he did once with Lazio though), the man from the Czech Republic, the man who felt betrayed by Lazio so he betrayed them by going to Roma, the man behind the Foggia miracle but also the one who launched Ciro Immobile, Alessandro Nesta, Beppe Signori and Pavel Nedved, among many.

Zeman was born in Prague on May 12 1947. He played football in the youth teams of Slavia Prague but he also played ice hockey, water polo and handball. In 1968 he was in Palermo with his uncle Cestmir Vycpalek, former player and ex manager of Juventus, when the Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia to repress the Prague Spring. He stayed in Italy, for obvious reasons, and his uncle got him his first jobs as manager in Palermo amateur teams. He became a professional manager in 1979 and started working in the Palermo youth teams .

His first real job was with Licata in Serie C2 in 1983. He did well in his three years there helping them to promotion in Serie C1 in 1984-85. He then went on to manage Foggia for the first time but was fired after the 27th game. In 1987 he was head trainer at Parma in Serie B and despite beating Real Madrid in a pre-season friendly, was let go after only 7 games. In 1988-89 he managed Messina in Serie B, helping them to a season without any particular excitement but launching Salvatore Schillaci's career.

His second stint at Foggia started in 1989-90 and there he created what the Italian media called Zemanlandia (Zeman land) , launching players like Francesco Baiano, Roberto Rambaudi and Beppe Signori. He chose players that could thrive in his 4-3-3 formation. They did not necessarily need to have a footballing pedigree but it was important they could be functional to his tactical vision. Some of the players did not even think they had the characteristics that Zeman thought they had, but he was a keen observer and could see things others could not. Foggia got promoted in his second year and despite the club selling basically all of the players he nurtured, he kept Foggia in Serie A for three consecutive years.

In 1994, Lazio President Sergio Cragnotti, wanting Lazio to be more exciting and have a change in mentality, decided that Zeman was the key and he became Lazio’s manager. One thing however is training a bunch of players that were not that famous and another is telling experienced pros that how they trained in pre-season all these years was completely wrong. Zeman was bound to have problems in trying to change Lazio’s mentality. The signing of Rambaudi and José Chamot plus the presence of Signori, all of them his former players, should have helped matters.

The pre-season training was much tougher than usual. The classic “washout” diet when the players had to eat only potatoes and vegetables in the first few days of training or the running up and down the steps of the stadium. No ball in the first days of training either.

The first year Lazio did very well, despite a few ups and downs, and arrived 2nd, their best position since the 1974 scudetto. They never really competed for anything even though they did reach the semi-finals of Coppa Italia and the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

The second year was characterized by the attempted sale of Signori to Parma and the team remained more or less the same as the previous year. More inconsistency during the campionato but a good third place in the end.

In the third year Lazio lost Aron Winter and Alen Boksic and they were replaced by Nedved and Igor Protti. The players seemed tired of following Zeman. Occasionally spectacular, it was difficult to keep the rhythm that the manager wanted and in the end Lazio were unable to deliver the goods. Zeman was sacked after losing to Bologna at home in January and replaced by Dino Zoff.

For Zeman this was a betrayal. Lazio was his big chance. He never imagined that he would be sacked. Some fans saw him sit down and cry after being told by Zoff he was no longer manager. What probably made it worse was the fact that the team started playing well again under Zoff and managed to reach fourth place.

The drop that broke the camel’s back was Tenerife. Lazio had scored opening goal, went under twice but managed to come back only to melt away and lose 5-3. The Czech was the great culprit. Signori stated at the end of the game “Scored three away goals, no team in the world would have been kicked out. Diego Fuser was even more drastic: “This time it’s not the player fault, they must be sought elsewhere. As for the tactical attitude, ask the coach. It is useless to bring players who do not follow him in training. Those who do not listen must stay at home”. The Zeman bubble had burst.

After being fired Zeman said: “Without Lazio I’m a destroyed man, I have never done so badly. I’m disappointed but not with myself. I’ve always given everything I had to Lazio. I must have made a few mistakes: the main one was that I wasn’t convincing enough”.

He wanted revenge and Roma President Franco Sensi gave it to him on a silver plate. What better revenge than becoming Roma manager and declaring all of his love for the Giallorossi for years to come. So he did, much to the surprise of the Lazio fans.

His first year at Roma had some positives and some negatives. The positives were that Roma played very well arriving 4th, for the first time in years Roma were placed above Lazio, the players thriving with the new 4-3-3 formation such as Francesco Totti and Cafu, plus the spectacular games. However Roma lost four derbies in one season, the inconsistency that occurred at Lazio repeated itself with Roma. And, let’s face it, Roma got to fourth place only because Lazio, who had demonstrated to be vastly superior to Rome, collapsed towards the end. His second year with Roma was not as good but he still managed to get Roma to fifth place. This was not enough to keep his job.

After managing the two Roman teams Zeman failed to settle down in any club for more than a few months. Three months in Turkey with Fenerbahce, a handful of games with Napoli before accepting the job as manager with Salernitana in Serie B. He reached six place with a bunch of unknowns in the first year but was sacked in the second. At Avellino in 2003-04 things got even worse and they were relegated in C1 at the end of the year.

In 2004-05 he was the manager of Lecce in Serie A. The team was guided to safety and stayed in Serie A but Zeman was not confirmed. In March 2006 he was called to Brescia but it was another failure as was his second stint with Lecce later on in the year.

In June 2008 he became manager of Red Star Belgrade but it did not last very long. His next job came in 2010 when the former owner of Foggia Pasquale Casillo bought the club again and gave Zeman the job as manager. The team did not do too badly in the third tier but below the Czech's expectations and he decided to leave at the end of the season.

In 2011 he joined Pescara. With a bunch of very young players (Ciro Immobile, Marco Verrati and Lorenzo Insigne) the old magic was back and Pescara was promoted in Serie A. His team was spectacular, way too strong for Serie B.

He did so well at Pescara that Roma offered him a contract and he went back to the Giallorossi after 13 years. In all of these years Zeman had always spoken well of Roma, and as a consequence pretty badly about Lazio, and was much loved by the Roma fans. Despite great enthusiasm, Roma did poorly and he was sacked after losing 4-2 at home against Cagliari in February. At least he avoided the infamous loss in the Coppa Italia final against Lazio.

Next up was Cagliari but it was a failure as usual. In 2015-16 he was manager at Lugano and managed to keep the team in the Super League but left at the end of the season. His return to Pescara in 2017 was also a failure.

After three years of inactivity he was called back to Foggia again, in Serie C. The team managed to get to the play-offs but were beaten in the first round. He resigned at the end of the season. From February 2023 he was back at Pescara in Serie C. The club reached the semifinal of the playoffs but were beaten by Delio Rossi's Foggia.

So how can one define Zeman’s career as manager? Many failures and a few successes. His management was successful only when there was a total, almost mystical faith in him. If any player had doubts then he could no longer be successful. Furthermore, his stubbornness over the 4-3-3 formation at all times, no matter what, did not help.

His Lazio teams were spectacular but inconsistent. They could beat the strongest Juventus 4-0 demonstrating to be way more superior but then lose to Vicenza for example. He could never have gone very far in Serie A.

He was on the bench for Lazio for 118 games (86 in Serie A, 16 in Coppa Italia and 16 in the UEFA Cup).



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