We Need to Talk About Teams' Dirty Tactics in Stopping Wilf Zaha

Written by Bryan Davies
Bryan Davies has had enough of teams like Watford trying to kick Wilf off the park...

There can be no sugarcoating Etienne Capoue’s assault on Wilfried Zaha: it was cowardly and spiteful, and he knew exactly what he was doing. It could easily have been a season-ender, and a career-definer. Players who suffer serious achilles injuries are never the same when they return - Christian Benteke is a prime example.

Capoue’s intervention was part of an obvious plan to unsettle our star player. It’s a movie we have seen countless times, be it directed by Watford or Huddersfield Town or butter-wouldn’t-melt Bournemouth. Inaction from Premier League referees has enabled the tactic to remain viable. Anthony Taylor compounded his hideous mistake by booking Zaha for winning the ball.

VAR can’t come to the Premier League quickly enough. If the officials on the pitch can’t do their jobs properly in protecting Zaha, perhaps those blessed with monitors and replays can. We shouldn’t hold our breath, though. As Patrick Barclay tweeted, it seems Zaha is governed by a special set of laws designed to handicap him.

Refereeing is a difficult job, but it’s not hard to see why no English officials were chosen to govern this summer’s World Cup. Zaha’s face doesn’t seem to fit, and referees are clearly being influenced by fans, the media, and grown men in costumes acting like Colin from The Fast Show.

Roy Hodgson was mocked for answering a question about a grown man in a costume acting like a proper Colin, but his point was a wider and serious one. Clubs know how important Zaha is to Palace, so go to great lengths to try and unsettle him. It’s all very funny to outsiders, but all the while Capoue and the like get away with it, the more dangerous it becomes. The club should go further in flagging things up and kicking up a fuss.

Zaha is disliked for being a ‘diver’, and we are told he has received the most bookings for simulation in recent seasons, but we are never reminded of the detail: the yellow cards he received at Leicester City and Watford (twice) were all very obviously incorrect. Only telling half a story plants seeds and perceptions, and mud sticks. Lies and half-truths can be spun into facts in less time than it takes Adrian Durham to taunt a billy goat.

I have never seen Zaha dive. I have seen him use contact from opponents, but every player does that. Zaha exists between a rock and a hard place when staying on his feet wins no rewards - away at Southampton in January is an obvious example.

As Zaha has discussed, when running at speed the slightest touch can send you over - if that wasn’t the case, ankle taps in rugby wouldn’t be a thing. There are many occasions where Zaha loses his balance and it is neither foul nor dive but, such is the black and white world we live in, he is accused of the latter.

Zaha is an emotional player. His gesticulations are mostly aimed at team mates, but opposition players and fans, seemingly unable to understand context and nuance, misread his actions. Given the way he is kicked from pillar to post every week, I’d argue Zaha is remarkably restrained when it comes to remonstrating with referees.

I have also never seen Zaha pull a Neymar and feign injury to try and get an opponent sent off. This whole conversation exists within a strange hierarchy where diving is apparently more heinous than a two-footed leg-breaker or pretending to be hurt, which is a truly conscious act of subterfuge.

Watford appeared to anoint themselves as moral arbiters last season. They were disgusted by Zaha but happy to surround referees, score a goal with a deliberate handball and roll around in apparent agony only to spring back to life once it became clear a free-kick was not forthcoming. Curious.

As we have seen with the treatment of Raheem Sterling, institutional racism is likely to be a factor. It is not to label any one individual as racist, but attitudes and stereotypes persist. It explains why Eden Hazard and Jamie Vardy are clever when they earn a penalty, but Zaha is a cheat. It explains why Sterling and Harry Maguire received such different headlines for doing the same thing post-World Cup. It explains why Danny Mills uses divisive and nationalistic language when criticising Zaha for having the temerity to opt to play for the nation of his birth.

Whatever Zaha does, he is judged differently. His spell with Manchester United is referenced as evidence that he couldn’t make it at a bigger club, yet that argument wasn’t used when Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah were at Wolfsburg, Everton and Roma respectively. He is criticised for showing loyalty to the hometown club he loves. Having given 10% of his salary to charity ever since he turned professional, he is never mentioned when Common Goal is discussed.

On the pitch, Zaha is unique. He is the greatest player in Palace’s history, and plays in a style few can match. Off the pitch he is grounded, humble and polite. Champagne talent, lemonade ego. He should be celebrated as the best of what football, academies and the Premier League can produce.