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Thursday, November 10, 2022

The one that got away? Ivory Coast’s Zaha prepares for England reunion | Wilfried Zaha

Even now, with Wilfried Zaha deep into an international career with Ivory Coast during which he has appeared at three Africa Cup of Nations finals, it is a question to tantalise. Was he the one that got away from England?

It will surely run through a few minds on Tuesday night when the 29-year-old Crystal Palace winger lines up at Wembley for Ivory Coast against England – the country for whom he won two caps in friendlies.

It will be a piece of history because no player has ever switched his allegiance from England and then returned to face them. Around the turn of the 20th century, there were two that transferred to England – Jack Reynolds from Ireland and Bobby Evans from Wales. Both had played matches against England and they would then win caps for them against Ireland and Wales, respectively.

Five others have been capped by England and another country and only one of those is from the modern era – Declan Rice, who appeared in three friendlies for Ireland before going to England. Rice was an unused substitute for England against Ireland in 2020.

Zaha, who was born in Abidjan and moved to south London as a four-year-old, made his decision to switch on 27 November 2016 because, frankly, he was sick of being overlooked by England.

Capped at youth levels, Zaha was given his senior bow by Roy Hodgson against Sweden in November 2012. Playing in the Championship for Palace, Zaha was introduced in the 85th minute of a 4-2 defeat which was made famous by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s fourth and final goal in stoppage-time – the outrageous 30-yard overhead kick.

Wilfried Zaha on his England debut takes on Sweden’s Behrang Safari in November 2012.
Wilfried Zaha on his England debut takes on Sweden’s Behrang Safari in November 2012. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

It was the following season that things became complicated. Zaha started the campaign at Manchester United and Hodgson would give him his second cap in August 2013; as a 75th-minute substitute in the 3-2 Wembley win against Scotland.

Zaha had been a member of Stuart Pearce’s England Under-21 squad at the European Championship in June of that year; they bombed at the group stage. And, with opportunity scarce at United under David Moyes, Zaha would find himself back with the Under-21s for the remainder of the autumn programme. By then, Gareth Southgate was the manager of the youth side. But after Zaha was loaned by United to Cardiff in the winter transfer window for the remainder of the season and continued to struggle, Southgate felt that he could no longer get him into his team.

It was the beginning of a lengthy spell in the international wilderness for Zaha and, when Southgate got the senior England manager’s job in September 2016 – initially on a caretaker basis – he would prolong it. Zaha’s camp have said the player had decided to declare for Ivory Coast before Southgate’s elevation while the manager has talked about the unsuccessful attempt he made to persuade him to change his mind.

Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha is a ‘passionate player’, says Gareth Southgate.
Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha is a ‘passionate player’, says Gareth Southgate. Photograph: Micah Crook/PPAUK/Shutterstock

Could things have been different if Southgate had pushed hard to name him in his first squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovenia in October 2016? There would also be the flare-up the following March when Southgate said that if a player did not feel “that 100% passion of playing for England, then I’m not sure it’s for me to sell that to you”. Zaha’s agent responded furiously, saying his client’s desire or passion should never have been publicly questioned when he made his international decision.

“I remember going to a hotel and meeting with Wilf,” Southgate says. “But at that point, he had made his mind up. I can understand it because he had been years without playing [for England]. My comments about players having to have the desire to play for England were tweaked a bit, I would say, so that created a bit of an atmosphere with Wilf and [the Palace chairman] Steve Parish for a while. That wasn’t an insinuation on Wilf. You couldn’t have a more passionate player.”

When Southgate first took charge of England, the wide attacking players that he counted on were Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, Adam Lallana, Theo Walcott, Marcus Rashford, Andros Townsend and Alex Oxlade‑Chamberlain. His options have now evolved to an encouraging degree, taking in Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish and Emile Smith Rowe. But as even Southgate admits, Zaha is different to all of them.

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“Roy [Hodgson] had players who were ahead of Wilf for a long period and then we had my four games as caretaker where we were quite settled with experienced players and we didn’t want to bring too many new players in,” Southgate says. “It’s hard to say what Wilf’s role might have been with us. Raheem has been a key part of our team for a long period, Lingard had done a fabulous job and, at the start, we had Lallana, who was our player of the year for the first 18 months or so.

“Would Wilf get into the squad now? I don’t know because he’s a good player playing at a high level every week. He’s a slightly different player to the ones we’ve got. No one had a crystal ball in terms of knowing how that would have worked out.”

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