Interviews

Wilfried Zaha’s guide to football, fatherhood and fighting negativity

From bouncing back after a tricky stint at Manchester United to having the strength to overcome racism on social media, Wilfried Zaha is the kind of guy you want on your side - whether that's on the pitch or not

Wilfried Zaha’s house, on a leafy private road in south London, is exactly how you’d expect a footballer’s house to be – probably because it was featured on the infamous TV soap Footballers’ Wives.  It has seven bedrooms, six bathrooms and a swimming pool. A Range Rover and a Lamborghini are parked on the driveway. There’s a couple of PlayStation controllers by the front door. The shoe rack is filled with Balenciaga Triple S trainers. Two Mercedes-Benz ride-on toy cars, his son Leo’s whips, are parked in the lounge.

Zaha is comfortable at home, hence the location of this interview. Since his return in 2014 from an ill-fated season-long spell at Manchester United to Crystal Palace (the club he joined the academy of aged 12) the attacker has been flying for the Eagles. The next season he won Palace’s fan-voted Player of the Year award, and the next, and the next. Last season’s accolade went to breakout full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but Zaha, to use modern parlance, ain’t even mad. ‘To be honest, it got to a point where I was even getting Player of the Month every month,’ he says. ‘They were calling it the “Wilfried Zaha Award”.’ It’s fine. He’s good.

wilfried zaha

Jacket, £695, Kent & Curwen. Jumper, £180, John Smedley. Trousers, £195, Mr P at mrporter.com. Sunglasses, £140 by Finlay. Rolex, Wilfried’s own

He’s just too good for you, in fact, as Palace’s fans chant. Arguably the best player in the Premier League outside the top six clubs, Zaha is the kind of ‘elite, game-breaking talent’, to borrow a phrase from the Independent, that you could say was priceless if the transfer market wasn’t so Batshuayi-crazy. A figure of around £80m has been quoted as enough to prise Zaha away from Palace, who last August tied him to a five-year, no-release-clause deal reportedly worth £130,000 a week. At 26, and about to enter his footballing peak, he will be the subject of fevered speculation this summer, whether or not he moves to realise his stated ambition of playing in the Champions League.

Palace is Zaha’s home, though, in more ways than one. His house previously belonged to the club’s late former owner Ron Noades. The Eagles’ crest is on the bottom of the swimming pool. Zaha is less at home doing a fashion shoot. ‘I had a few opportunities to do it before and I just didn’t want to,’ he says. This time, though, he thought, ‘Why not?’ Zaha knows what he likes fashion-wise; he started his own label, Long Live, with his friend and adviser Kenny Annan-Jonathan, in 2015, because he had looks in his head that he couldn’t locate.

wilfried zaha

Trench coat, £2,795; T-shirt, £920; Trousers, £980, all by Alexander McQueen; Canvas sneakers, £590, by Rick Owens

‘Being a footballer as well, oh my days, I see awful outfits regularly,’ Zaha continues. ‘I won’t even name the person, but a couple days ago someone wore a Gucci headband, a Gucci bag… No, man, that’s too much.’ Wearing all designer is ‘just thinking you can buy fashion’, so he mixes it up: ‘I could wear, like, ASOS jeans, a Zara top and then my Balenciagas’. He has, by his own admission, ‘a little addiction for those’, but he doesn’t, he insists, have professional help: ‘Nah, this is all me, man.’ Speaking of styling, and as incandescent as retrosexual players-turned-pundits might get at the prospect, does he do his hair in the dressing room before a game? ‘I have to look my best,’ defends Zaha. ‘I’m not playing in the dark.’ Anyway, his current dreadlocks are relatively low maintenance.

“With football, you get to a point where you start to think: ‘Do I still love it, or am I doing it as a job?’”

Hair aside, Zaha’s pre-match preparation features another element that would be alien to older players. ‘For a couple of weeks, I’ve been speaking to a kind of life coach,’ he says. ‘With football, you get to a point where you start to think, “Do I still love it, or am I doing it as a job?”’ The life coach has helped to reawaken certain things in him, to remember – or realise – that it only takes a second of a 90-minute game to score: ‘Going into a game with that mentality, that hunger: “I want to score, I want to score, I want to score.”’ They have a phone call before every game, ‘just saying stuff to myself like, “I’ll make a difference to today’s game.”’

Before he leaves home, he holds hands with his dad and prays: ‘And when I go, blaze music in the car until I get there.’ Before he exits the dressing room, Zaha makes one last prayer. Not for any specific outcome, but for God to take control of his actions and protect him from any injury, protect his team: ‘The only thing that can prevent me from reaching my goal is my mentality, or injury.’

wilfried zaha

Trench coat, £2,795 and T-shirt, £920, both by Alexander McQueen

It’s no surprise that Zaha appeals to a higher authority for protection when he’s consistently one of the division’s most fouled players. Earlier last season, having just returned from injury, he reacted angrily to a foul by a Huddersfield Town defender, who was booked. But Zaha received a telling-off from the referee. Two minutes later, his every touch booed by the Yorkshire crowd, he was himself booked for a late challenge. Ten minutes after that, he scored the game’s only goal, picking up the ball (to jeers) 40 yards out, powering past two opponents and curling it into the far top corner. ‘I feel like before anyone gets a red I’d have to get my leg broken or something,’ he told the BBC after the final whistle blew. ‘That’s why I lose my head.’

Zaha plays on the edge, mostly productively, but his frustrated side was coming out more. A bad pass would spin him out: ‘It annoyed me so much that it would put me off my game, and then I’d walk around angry for, like, five minutes,’ he says. ‘Then I can’t do what I do, because I have to be creative and my mind has to be clear.’

Then he ‘blew up’. Late on in a 1-1 draw against Southampton in January, having scored to put Palace ahead, he responded to being pulled back by an opponent, and not getting a free kick, by squaring up to the offender. Yellow card – for Zaha. He sarcastically clapped the referee, who for his encore produced a second yellow card, then a red. He might seem chilled off the pitch, but on it, Zaha can be ‘a very angry man.’

wilfried zaha

Suit, £675, by Hackett; Shirt, £110, by Hamilton and Hare

Hence the retaining of his life coach, or anger manager. He’s taught Zaha to imagine whoever he’s angry at, then say whatever it is they did, to get it out, release the pressure valve: ‘Then, in my head, the person just goes blurrier and blurrier until they disappear.’ He still gets angry over ‘silly things’, but he’s trying to deal with it better. Not let it consume him. Because there’s more to life. ‘Do you know how tiring it is, being angry?’ he laughs. ‘It’s a waste of time. There’s so much more to be happy about.’

“Do you know how tiring it is, being angry?. It’s a waste of time. There’s so much more to be happy about.”

The reasons that Zaha has now to be cheerful about outnumber those that he had at United, which weren’t enough to stop the failure of his long-dreamt big-club move from getting him down. One of the biggest popular misperceptions of footballers, he says, is that being extremely well-paid means you don’t have feelings: ‘He’s got money, he’ll be fine.’

Sir Alex Ferguson signed Zaha for United but retired before he arrived. The then 19-year-old found himself far away from home, family and friends, not getting the chance under new boss David Moyes to do the job he was hired by someone else for. Rumours circulated that he was out of favour because he was sleeping with Moyes’ daughter, which Zaha publicly denied, but the club neglected to (which he’s since criticised). He was living away from the rest of the players in a big house where he was ‘cooped up in one room, having Skittles for dinner’ (he couldn’t cook). To the outside world, he’s ‘having the most fun, driving his Lamborghini’. ‘That’s what people don’t understand,’ he says. ‘You still need that love from your family, your friends.’

wilfried zaha

Palm-tree print shirt, £537, by Paul Smith; Trousers with silk waistband, £980, by Alexander McQueen

Zaha grew up down the road from Palace’s ground, in Thornton Heath, with five older brothers, two older sisters and one younger sister. But he was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He moved to the UK aged four, speaking only French. His friend Javan, one of two that he still has from the first year of nursery, helped him with his English. Zaha wanted to be a footballer, he says, as much as he could breathe, and overcame many obstacles. Not so much ‘gang stuff’, as that never made sense to him. More lack of money, transport and boots (he had to play in trainers on grass).

‘It’s your mindset,’ says Zaha, whose mentality has been questioned in the past. Two years ago, onetime Palace teammate Brede Hangeland told a podcast in his native Norway that Zaha ‘would be incredible if he was serious’. A few months later, after Zaha scored a wonder goal for Ivory Coast against Russia, the club’s former chairman Simon Jordan tweeted that Zaha was ‘not organised and professional enough’ when he’d been called up to play a grand total of 21 minutes for England as a 19-year-old. Player-turned-pundit Danny Mills accused Zaha of taking an ‘easy option’ by choosing to represent his birthplace, even though England hadn’t picked up the phone since Zaha’s last cap in 2014 while Ivory Coast, a no less respectable national team, had come calling.

The decisive factor in Zaha’s subsequent transformation into one of football’s hottest properties wasn’t mental or physical, he says, but ‘environment and Palace’. After Manchester, he didn’t doubt his ability, he just needed to rebuild his confidence. And he didn’t start flying instantly. There were spells where he was being hauled off at half time, not getting on with managers. But he made himself indispensable. His bumper new contract came after a season when Palace didn’t earn a single point when he didn’t play. Until December, the ‘cursed’ club was on a run of 13 games without Wilf, 13 defeats. ‘The stats speak for themselves,’ he laughs.

wilfried zaha

Jacquard silk jacket, £795, and trousers, £290, both by Chester Barrie; T-shirt, £51 for 10, by ASOS

Even before that, Palace fans welcomed him back with open arms. ‘They accepted me like I never left,’ says Zaha, who repaid some of that kindness in September by making what the club called ‘a substantial financial contribution’ to Palace Ladies’ cash-strapped amateur players. He donates 10 per cent of his wages to charities in the UK and Ivory Coast, and in April was presented with an award for philanthropy at a Football for Peace dinner to promote tolerance.

Not all football fans are as accepting. Racism, one of the beautiful game’s ugliest sides, was disturbingly widespread last season, and Zaha alone was victim of several reported incidences. In April, he retweeted a message calling him ‘a diving monkey’ after winning a decisive penalty against Newcastle, adding a ‘LOL’. After winning a penalty against Arsenal in October, he responded on Instagram to the barrage of abuse that ensued: ‘For all the people being racist and wishing death on my family, I wish you and your families the best, too,’ adding a kiss and a PS: ‘My life is still very good despite your hate.’

wilfried zaha

Denim jacket, £219, by Albam; T-shirt, £65, by Les Basics

‘Nearly every game I’m called a monkey or a nigger or a whatever,’ Zaha says, depressingly. ‘Imagine if I really got down about that?’ Racism has affected him throughout his career, but it’s gotten worse lately, he thinks, because perpetrators know there are no serious repercussions, and they can gain online notoriety. He’s not trying to be an activist: ‘Yeah, Wilf Zaha’s going to make a speech about racism.’ He’s ‘so over it’. But he also wants to raise awareness that it’s happening, regularly, and that wearing an anti-racism T-shirt isn’t enough. He feels like people – angry men – come to matches to vent, to cleanse themselves by shouting and screaming obscenities at the players.

“I don’t know if we’re animals to them or whatever. Why is this okay?”

‘I don’t know if we’re animals to them or whatever,’ he says. ‘Why is this okay? Why are you saying these things right next to your five-year-old kid? And then when you leave, what, you’re back to being a normal dad, working a normal job?’ Accusations of diving against him are, he says, another pretext to make a racist comment: ‘People mask this stuff.’

wilfried zaha

Jacket, £695, Kent & Curwen. Jumper, £180, John Smedley. Trousers, £195, Mr P at mrporter.com. Sunglasses, £140 by Finlay. Rolex, Wilfried’s own

At least on Instagram there are ‘pictures of flowers’ and whatnot. Twitter’s ‘just a place to talk garbage’, so Zaha often deletes that after games and tries to do other stuff, like play with his son. ‘He’ll take my mind off everything,’ he says. ‘He doesn’t know what happened today.’ Still, he’d be over the moon for Leo to become a footballer. ‘His first words were “Where’s the ball?”’ says Zaha. ‘Imagine that.’ Zaha used to come home from games and grill everyone on how he’d done, or play the blame game. Eventually he realised: “Most of the time, you’ve just got to watch your own performance.’ If he’s played well, he might tune into Match of the Day. He replayed his goal against Cardiff ‘a million times’ on the drive home from Wales.

Social media’s not all trash, mind. There are all the pleas from people who’ve called him crap or a diver, asking him to sign for their club. ‘I’m getting DMs: “Would you come back to Man Utd?”’ he says. ‘Oh, really? I was in a bad place then. But I’m good now.’

Shot on location at the Queens Square development in Croydon which is set to revitalise the town centre by creating a new public plaza plus retail and 227 residential units in the former Nestle Building (due for completion in early 2021). queens-sq.com

Thanks to Lee Fieldwick, Peter Gibney and Thomas / Stevenson Grooming by Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes using Tom Ford / Stylist assisted by Thomas Mwabime and Boris Donnadieu