Well that's that. After 13 years of longing, hoping and occasionally praying, the second coming of Zdenek Zeman is over before it really had a chance to begin. And August seems a very long time ago.
All those dreams of Zemanlandia laying waste to the doubters, of a great side of young attacking talent playing an unstoppable 4-3-3 in the Champions League, of a historic wrong being made right...all undone. And by text message, too. So much for romance in modern sport.
It seems incomprehensible that Roma have made the decision to fire Zeman. The results were hit-and-miss? So what. He refused to be pressured into change? Obviously. He annoyed a few people? Duh.
This isn't a dull-but-nice kinda guy we're talking about. It's Zdenek Zeman—world football's most idiosyncratic coach.
He was always going to be confrontational. And only ever going to play one type of football. So, as wrong as it was to fire him halfway through a season, the really idiotic decision was to hire him in the first place if they weren't going to give him time.
Zeman's was a long-term project, and on the evidence of Erik Lamela's development alone, it deserved more time than it got.
After all, he'd turned Marquinhos, an unheard-of 18-year-old Brazilian, into one of the league's best defenders. He'd given Alessio Romagnoli, a teenage Roman, his debut in midfield. By comparison, the 21-year-old Alessandro Florenzi looked like a late bloomer when he started featuring regularly.
The coach also resuscitated the incredible talent of Francesco Totti, whom he once described as "the best three players [sic] in Italy." He persevered with the precociously talented Mattia Destro, even when his confidence was low and goals seemed unlikely. He continued to play the unpopular Panagiotis Tachtsidis and ignored calls to include the out-of-sorts Daniele De Rossi. Right or wrong, he stuck to his guns.
Which, one would assume, is what you'd want him to do having hired him. Zeman's return to the Eternal City was not meant to be a stopgap. It was meant to be the beginning of a new era. And it was all meant to be done his way.
When he signed for Roma, he gave an interview with the team's own TV channel that should have made his approach obvious, even if the current American owners of the club were not well-versed in the Czech's coaching history and connection to the Giallorossi. Zeman commented (via Football Italia):
I am happy to be back after so many years. The fans often asked me to return over these 13 years and I’m happy to be here. I hope to give Roma what I could not in my first two years here.
In my football I try to eliminate pointless things, so for me a horizontal pass is futile, as it’s just loaning each other the ball. We must always try to do something that will have meaning.
Which is what his hiring felt like: something with meaning. An appointment to get the fans excited, to start fresh with an exciting crop of youngsters—and perhaps to annoy some old foes. With teenagers and passion and unshakable beliefs in one—and only one—way of playing football, there were always going to be problems early on. The club must have known that.
So why did they expect him to be different? Better to chose a safe, sensible candidate rather than the impractical, romantic one. Why, to paraphrase a great Swedish philosopher, buy a Ferrari if what you actually want is a Fiat?
Another former Roma coach who also counts himself as a fan has come out asking as much. Carlo Mazzone told LaGazzetta dello Sport:
When they decided to hire Zeman, they knew his strengths and weaknesses. It requires patience and I don’t think he was responsible for the situation that was created there.
Zeman has an important career behind him and he would’ve paid out of his own pocket to win with Roma. It was his dream job. I would’ve gone to the end of the season with Zeman and given him time, even after 10 defeats. Whoever made this decision is incompetent. Making a choice like this at this stage of the season is incomprehensible.
Around Rome, the fans agree. Visit the site of Italian daily La Repubblica, and you can see one of them trying to give Zeman his season ticket, saying that he no longer wants to go to games after how the Czech was deal with. Amusing, but indicative of how cheated many fans feel. Zeman was their coach, not to be treated like any two-bit manager.
Only the widely delusional could have expected a title challenge this season with this team. In the wonderfully blinkered world of football, the club said it was expecting to challenge, but the squad was nowhere near ready, and to say it was would be to disrespect the opposition.
After a year and a half in Italy, Maarten Stekelenburg still didn't speak any Italian. Zeman's preferred back four were all new to the club. The midfield was full of cheap squad players like Michael Bradley, Florenzi and Tachtsidis—none of whom would get near the starting 11 at Juventus, Napoli or even Lazio.
So what now? Another lunge back in time for a board that seem desperate to please to fans without seemingly knowing how. Aurelio Andreazzoli, who was assistant to Roma's last successful coach Luciano Spalletti, will take the reins—and take the team back in time to some incarnation of Spalletti's famous 4-2-3-1.
On paper, it looks like it might work, in the short term at least. Daniele De Rossi will come back into the midfield, alongside Bradley or Tachtsidis, behind an attacking trio like Totti, Lamela and Miralem Pjanic with a lone striker up front.
It got results in the past, and it sure sounds good. But then, so did Zeman.