·1 June 2023
·1 June 2023
s the months have passed and the controversy faded, the boos that once followed Kurt Zouma around the country have gradually become more infrequent, less impassioned, less intense. The counteracting “ZOOUUMs”, meanwhile, have shed their essence of partisan defiance and morphed into something more jovial, unashamed, guilt-free.
In pitch, the two are similar enough to be almost indistinguishable. Their noisy contrast, though, speaks in microcosm to a footballer’s quiet rehabilitation.
It was 16 months ago that Zouma’s abhorrent treatment of his pet cat sparked widespread outrage, but as he sits down with Standard Sport for his first newspaper interview since, on the brink of capping something of a personal turnaround at West Ham with European glory, the sense of contrition remains.
“It’s been a tough time for me and for my family,” the defender says. “We’ve been through a lot. I made a mistake, I know — I made a bad one. I have to say sorry again for what I’ve done, but life is about moving on.”
West Ham fans were the first to do so, but forgiveness was hardly immediate, some even joining the jeers when Zouma turned out against Watford at the height of the storm.
These days, though, the deep, rumbling war cry that accompanies every header — Fulham fans will be familiar with the Tim REAAAM equivalent — tells of the way Zouma has been readmitted as a figure of near-cult appreciation at the London Stadium. There is a debt for that support which he feels obliged to clear, Wednesday’s Europa Conference League Final against Fiorentina earmarked as the obvious place to square accounts.
“It means a lot to me, hearing the fans scream my name,” the Frenchman says. “It gives you extra motivation, you want to win every duel. I want to give it back by winning a trophy. That would be the best feeling.”
There are some for whom the renewed idolisation of Zouma will never quite sit right, his name impossible to disassociate from those grim images of a Bengal being drop-kicked across the kitchen tiles. Others never quite understood the sheer scale of the backlash in the first place.
For many, though, it is simply a case of time passing and a punishment being served. A year ago today Zouma was sentenced to 180 hours of community service and served a maximum fine of two weeks’ wages by the club, but also, inexcusably, targeted by horrendous racist abuse and death threats online. Football, he says, “helped me keep my head straight”.
“Obviously, it affected me,” Zouma adds. “But we’re football players and I’ve been very lucky to do what I love, to keep playing football.
“My wife and my kids [Zouma has three children, aged five, seven and nine], my family, everybody around me, even at the club, the lads, the fans, people have helped me through everything. It affected me but they helped me and I’ve kept a smile on my face, because that’s who I am.”
Aside from that being a statement of almost literal truth (Zouma’s middle name is Happy), it is a claim that checks out, a broad grin the centre-back’s default facial setting through all but the more sombre parts of our conversation.
“I’ve always been happy, always been positive,” he says, and that extends to what, until the last month or two, has been a ceaselessly challenging campaign for West Ham, immersed in a relegation battle alongside their outstanding European run. The brunt of the strain has been borne by David Moyes, the manager who brought Zouma to the club and has backed him, at times almost to a fault, ever since. It is payback time on that front, too.
“I have a lot of respect for him and the career he’s had as a manager, managing for more than a thousand games,” Zouma says, fully aware of what that longevity is yet to yield. “He’s been successful but he deserves a trophy. Everyone’s behind him and, hopefully, we can finish the season with a win, because it’s been tough for him, tough for everybody.”
Given the showpiece against Fiorentina is West Ham’s first major European final in 47 years, it should come as no shock that experience of such occasions is thin on the ground, but Zouma is one of a few exceptions, having been an unused substitute in Chelsea’s Champions League success of 2021. It was the same summer that he swapped west London for east in search of a more prominent role and, having found it at the heart of Moyes’s defence, he feels lifting a second European trophy would “mean a lot more”.
“It’s a different team [to Chelsea], very talented, but I try and talk to the players about what I’ve been through, how I’ve won trophies,” he says. “This club deserves something. I always said when I joined that’s what I’m dreaming of and my target is to win something. We’re just one game away, so let’s do it.”
Progress to this point has been startlingly smooth, West Ham winning 13 and drawing one of their 14 games in Europe this term and the moment of greatest drama, if it is appropriate to call it that, coming after the full-time whistle in the semi-final win over AZ Alkmaar.
Zouma did not have family caught up in the attack by Dutch ultras, but was, unsurprisingly, appalled. If there is a positive, however, he believes the incident and his team-mates’ response made a mockery of any suggestion that this is a divided club.
“It’s the whole family, everyone stood up for each other and helped each other out,” he explains. “It’s something you don’t see everywhere and we’re lucky to have it here.”
Lucky, too, he says, to have ‘Knollsy’, the Hammers fan dubbed a hero after battling off hordes of hooded aggressors, his actions not going unnoticed within the dressing room. “Everyone’s been talking about him!” Zouma laughs. “He saved, I think, lives. We have to give credit to him, he was defending by himself — he was like the Iron Man!”
Some would still happily have Zouma cast as the villain, but his response to adversity — however self-inflicted — leaves it impossible to escape the element of personal redemption that would come with collective triumph in Prague.
“We’ve managed to get through everything to be here,” he adds, the ‘we’ just as appropriate in the royal sense as the one in which it is intended. “It’s just one more game, one more push.”
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