At a time when being a superstar footballer means signing for a big club and playing in the Champions League, Wilfried Zaha has thrived by returning to his boyhood team.
It was October 14th, 2017, and things were not looking good for Crystal Palace. They had lost seven straight matches, had yet to score a goal in the young Premier League season, and were about to host Chelsea, the reigning league champions. All signs pointed towards another disheartening Palace loss. Well, all except for one: Wilfried Zaha was back from injury.
Zaha, Croydon’s prodigal son, proved to be the difference. Just before halftime with the score tied 1-1, Zaha received a pass at the edge of the Chelsea box, took a touch around Cesar Azpilicueta and calmly stroked the ball into the far corner. Zaha’s goal was the first goal scored by a Palace player all season (the opener was an own goal) and kickstarted a remarkable turnaround that saw Palace eventually finish the season solidly mid-table.
Along the way, Zaha cemented his status as one of the most exciting players in the league, compiling a season highlight video that puts anyone’s And-1 mixtape to shame. Conventional wisdom says that the next step for Zaha — a 25 year-old offensive star coming off a stellar campaign with an average EPL team — would be to jump ship to a Champions League club. Everyone from Tottenham to Dortmund to Manchester City reportedly expressed interest.
But Zaha chose to stay put. Now, at the dawn of a new Premier League season, he is an outlier among the league’s biggest stars, staying at the hometown club that has fostered his success instead of chasing the bright European lights. It would be easy, and perhaps fair, to criticize Zaha for not having the ambition to try to play at the highest level of European club football when he has the skill to do so, but to understand the Premier League’s most dynamic homebody you have to understand the roller coaster first act of his career.
The younger version of Zaha would not have stayed at Palace this summer. Back in 2013, he was just 21 when he ended his first stint at Palace, his boyhood club. After a few stellar seasons in the Championship including one in which he was voted Football League Young Player of the Year, Sir Alex Ferguson came knocking, and Zaha packed his bags for Manchester.
Shortly before that United transfer, The Guardian profiled Zaha and the young starlet oozed with confidence, talking about his desire to play in the Premier League and what tricks he would use to get past Ashley Cole.
“I want to come up against defenders who will properly test me,” he said. “I’d never look at someone and think he’s better than me, unless it’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. When I get on the pitch it’s my time.”
But by the time Zaha arrived at Old Trafford, David Moyes had taken over, freezing Zaha out of the lineup. Under intense pressure to replicate the Ferguson era, Moyes had no desire to give serious playing time to a 21 year-old that he didn’t even sign.
Reflecting on his time at United in an interview last year, Zaha said he also didn’t do himself any favors. “I didn’t know what to expect, how to behave, whatever,” he said. “I was just a youngster who wanted to do tricks, I didn’t even care about end product really.” Zaha made just two league appearances for United in 2013-14 before being shipped off to Cardiff City on loan.
After a frustrating year in Manchester, Zaha returned home. Just the memory of coming back to Palace produced a look of relief on his face in an interview with the BBC’s Gabby Logan last year. “The fans greeted me like I didn’t even leave. The love was there instantly” he said.
When Zaha speaks, his eyes are wide and expressive, and it is clear that he spent those hard years thinking about what makes him tick as a footballer. “I’m a confidence player,” he said. “So when my confidence is high, I’m able to do things that I didn’t even think I could do. So having the fans even sing ‘He’s just too good for you’ and stuff like that, it’s just like these people proper love me.”
The same decision-making process — seeking an environment in which he feels valued over the more intense lime light — also led him to switch his international allegiance from England to the Ivory Coast, the country of his birth. Zaha made his England debut in 2012 around the time of his move to Manchester United, but after he was left in the international wilderness. “When I stopped playing for England, I had a four year gap where I was not picked, no matter what I did,” he said in that BBC interview, clearly frustrated that he was ignored by a national team set-up he felt he was good enough to contribute to.
So Zaha decided to play for the Ivory Coast. In November 2017, Palace released a short documentary called “Wilfried Zaha: Coming Home” about their star player’s decision to switch national allegiance. In it, he stands on a beach in the Ivory Coast, wearing an Ivory Coast warm-up jersey. “Leaving here as no one and coming back as a hero …” he says before cutting himself off. “And I feel like I haven’t done anything yet! That’s why putting on the [Ivory Coast] shirt means so much, because they have so much love and belief in me and I haven’t even done anything yet.”
This is the perfect distillation of Zaha. A footballer who needs the adoration to thrive, who only wants to play where he is wanted. It makes him unique in this era of big-money moves and glory-hunting. It’s also welcome news for Palace fans, hoping to hang onto their star for as long as possible. Maybe the right team will come one day and Zaha will once again leave, but until then he is a special kind of Premier League player, one with enough talent to play at the very highest level but also one with an even rarer gift: enough introspection to understand what has fueled his success so far.