Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Savio: The Cockney Fantasista

At age 16, Gianfranco Zola had a choice to make. If you want to succeed, he was told, you need to be out training five times a day. He couldn't do that and go to school, so he gave up school, joined a gym and started to build himself up. At 18 he was signed by Nuorese (in nearby Nuoro, the third city of Sardinia) and within three years he had moved to Torres (in Sassari, the second city of Sardinia), in the Italian third division. Six years on and he was still plugging away, still dreaming of making it to the big time. But there was no sign of a breakthrough. Scouts from the mainland rarely visited. He must have thought his moment would never arrive. "Hmmm, I certainly knew it was going to be difficult," he says. "But never, never, never did I feel defeated or discouraged. What happened occurred naturally because I loved what I was doing."

What happened was that Luciano Moggi, then general manager of Napoli football club, later general director of Juventus and ever a man who can spot a good piece of business, saw Zola in action. "I have been down to Sardinia," he reported, "and I can assure you that this is a little Maradona." In fact, both men were 5ft 6in, but at Napoli Zola soon found himself operating as Maradona's understudy. Zoladona, they called him, and he spent most of his first season watching the great man from the substitutes' bench.

Gradually, stories of his apprenticeship drifted back to Sardinia. In training, Maradona had kicked the ball 20 yards with such spin that it turned all the way back on itself to its master's feet. Zola had watched a few times, then produced an exact replica. Zolito - little Zola - Maradona had said, is truly great. The two men only spent one year together, with Napoli winning the league that season, but in that time as Maradona's understudy Zola says that… well he’ll tell it better.

"I learnt everything from Diego. I used to spy on him every time he trained and learned how to curl a free kick just like him. After one year I had completely changed. I saw him do things in training and in matches I had never even dreamed possible. He was simply the best I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been a good player if I had not played with him at that stage of my career but I do know I wouldn’t have been the player I eventually became."

When Maradona left, due to what Zola will describe only as his having had "a few problems with other things," Zola became the new occupant of his No 10 shirt. In Italy, it is the number given to the fantasista, the fantasy man. So yesterday, when Gianfranco Zola made the decision to hand his new signing Savio Nsereko the West Ham No.10 shirt, the message was clear: You can become as good as me. The Hammers boss beat Arsenal, Chelsea, Roma and his former club Napoli to the signature of the Ugandan-born Germany Under-20 star, and despite admitting he has only seen him play on tape, Zola sees his own reflection when he gazes at his raw protege.

The 19-year-old Nsereko moved from Uganda to Germany when he was two years old and played for 1860 Munich, where he was spotted by Gianluca Nani, who took him to Italy with Brescia. Zola is convinced the German has the all the attributes needed to become a big star in the Premier League and follow in his own footsteps. "We have been following Savio for a while. I saw him on tape a long time ago and I have seen him on television recently," he said. "I think he is very similar to the player I was when I was 19 years old. When I was that age I was not the same player I was later, but I was very good at taking players on and that is one of the main qualities that makes the difference between a normal player and a special player."

Zola believes West Ham fans are in for a treat if Savio is given time to settle in at Upton Park. "He is already a top player, but on top of that he needs to build other qualities and that is why he is here," stated Zola. "I am going to try to give him the other bits that are missing in his game to take him a step higher. I think he is the type of player who catches the eye. In modern football there are not many players with that ability. He's one of those players who in one-on-one situations is deadly. He is quick, the kind of player I like and who is very important to be in the team. He creates something for you. He can play well with Carlton Cole but he can play in different positions. He is adaptable and is willing to learn to improve."

The Hammers smashed their transfer record by splashing an estimated £9million on the Ugandan-German from Italian Serie B, but Zola insists it is not a gamble. The fact that he elected to give Savio the shirt number of the fantasista is evidence enough of the huge faith he has in the talent of the Germany Under-20 international. For his part, Savio says he wants to follow in the footsteps of his new manager – and insists he has moved to England to learn from the master. "I spoke to the coach and I know Gianluca Nani very well and it is important to have someone I know at the club and who believes in me," said Savio. "I have heard a lot about Zola as a player because he was a big player. I don’t want to say I am like him but he had very good characteristics and good technique and I can learn from him."

Addressing the media throng yesterday in perfect English, Savio added: "I am very happy to be here and am proud to have the possibility of playing for a club like West Ham. I was happy [to move to England] because West Ham is a big club and a big story so I was very excited. I know a lot about the manager. I saw him play and he was a great player and I think he is also a great manager and can improve me a lot. I will try to do my best to improve and help the team to get better. I know it's a big responsibility [to wear the No 10] but I think I know what I can do and I'm happy for that and that's it. I see myself that I hope I can help us. I have to improve a lot and I will try to improve and get better in training every day."

When Gianfranco Zola took over the helm at West Ham he was the unanimous choice of the United board. After Alan Curbishley took the decision to walk, claiming he had been undermined over transfers, it gave the club the opportunity to recruit a different style of manager. A coach. Duxbury came close to appointing Roberto Donadoni but then, in Rome, met Zola. He read through the Football Project and found it chimed with his own ambition. "He's got an incredible reputation as a winner and he wouldn't do anything to risk that so he agreed to join on the basis of the Football Project," Duxbury said.

"He believed it was the way to achieve success and it's what excites him. What's lost in football is that people think the only way to be successful is to buy great players, but why can't you coach them into great players? Take Freddie Sears and let Zola work with and teach him how to be a striker. If you buy Kaka you defeat the object, you buy success. We want to create it." Zola brings to Upton Park a clear and defined commitment to attacking football, underpinned with steel. Zola's way is clear. "I have my system," he said. "I like to train a lot with the ball with a lot of intensity in the sessions. I know my training sessions are very demanding, but they are always with the ball and always with a lot of enjoyment. The players have already said to me they like it very much."

As for the style of play fans can eventually expect: "The idea is to get to the point where we play offensive football as much as possible." That commitment is in the Sardinian's blood, of course, but developed during those years he spent at Napoli, first as Maradona's under-study then as his team-mate. The rotund genius was despised by Three Lions fans for scoring a dishonest goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. His blatant cheating was captured on TV but it never detracted from the skill and verve he brought to games. He never stopped encouraging Zola.

"Maradona has been a great influence on me. When I first met him I was only 23 and just a young player trying to get better and I had him in from of me. The best player in the world, so I felt lucky," Zola said. "When you have that it inspires you to do better and it was a challenge to get my level of football to his. He spoke to me a lot. Anybody who has played with Maradona can tell you he is a lovely, simple guy. Then he was the best player in the world by far and probably the best player of all time. But it was easy to talk to him. He was humble and genuine. We had a particularly good relationship and I used to stay longer on the training ground with him, trying free-kicks and playing small games. My challenge was to get my level of football to his. What I liked about Diego was he had always had the right solution on the pitch. I hope we can do that here at West Ham."

It developed Zola's commitment to attacking football. "I was a striker and was a player who liked to play the ball and enjoy myself so that is my mentality," he said. "When I went to Naples we had a team with Maradona, Careca, Alemao – quality players – and we used to play good-looking football. That is where my ideas on playing come from. When I used to look at them in games and in training, there were many times when I thought I’d never get in the team. They were so good but I never gave up. I always said to myself ‘If I want to play in this team I will have to get better than them’."

Zola is hoping his mentality will rub off on his young Hammers. He said: "My mentality was to always improve, it was a good outlook. And it should be enjoyable for the players. If they are enjoying it the results you get are much better. I’m not pretentious to say everything will be all right. So I need the crowd to be patient and support us all the time. I don’t have a magic wand. But it feels good to be at this club."

He also hopes that patience extends towards his new number ten. Savio will face Hull tonight if his international clearance comes through. "We have expectations of Savio, but we do not forget that the boy is 19 years old and he has come here for the future" said Zola. "We are going to try an improve him and make him a better player. We know that he has got great potential and can become a top player. But everybody needs to be patient. He wants to improve and we want to help him, but he also needs time to settle. The reason why we bought Savio is that we saw the potential which belongs to special players. We like to gamble, but I do not think that Savio is a gamble. He will become an important player but we have to allow him time to get used to the rhythm of the Premier League. I am confident he will, he is a strong boy and he is mature."

1 comment:

Devo's Barnet said...

Another great article, thanks! Lifted my spirits even higher, what a great philosophy Zola has, and dare I say it, even Duxbury seems to be making sense these days!

Well done with this site by the way, I think it's the most literate and intelligent West Ham blog site on the web, sorry Iain Dale, I like yours as well!


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