The birth of Zemanlandia

The birth of Zemanlandia

CAUTION: FOR YEARS THAT WAS HOW CLUBS reacted upon their promotion to the Serie A. The big clubs, those with money and power, were simply too strong for them, so naturally they did their best to limit the damage.

It got worse once foreign players were allowed back into the Italian game. Those same big clubs – and even the not so big ones – could attract some of the world’s best talents, widening the gap even further. Lacking similar resources, the small provincial sides that found themselves in the Serie A often reacted by trying to put up the barricades; by placing their faith in an organised and well-manned defence in the hope of limiting the damage as much as possible.

That is how Foggia were expected to play once they won the Serie B in 1991. After all they were a small club managed by an unknown and with a squad full of inexperienced players, none of whom was even a remotely familiar name. But instead of doing what many others had done before them and cowered when put in front of the mighty elite of Italian football, Foggia went on the attack, blowing everyone away with a cavalier style of football the like of which had never been seen before.

Foggia had been Serie A semi-regulars in the 15 years between 1964 and 1978, a period that they split equally between the top two divisions. In 1978, however, there came a relegation from which they couldn’t recover and rather than going up, they slid down to Serie C1. Humiliatingly, they even risked demotion to Serie C2 because of match-fixing.

Then two men changed everything. The first one was Pasquale Casillo, a Neapolitan businessman who had made his money in the wheat industry – indeed he carried the unimaginative nickname of the King of Wheat – and who, like many rich men of that era, wanted to indulge his passion for football by buying into a club.

In 1986 he managed to do that by taking over Foggia, with his larger-than-life personality immediately inflaming the support, having made it known that he had big plans for the club. Those plans included a new manager but when he turned to director of football Peppino Pavone for suggestions of who that might be, the reply Casillo received left him perplexed.

At the time very few people had heard of Zdeněk Zeman but even though Pavone was still young – at 36 he had just brought to an end a playing career that had lasted nineteen years – he was a shrewd judge who had seen up close what Zeman could do.

What Pavone had seen, and which few others had observed, was how Zeman had dragged Licata – a small Sicilian club with a history of mediocrity – from non-league football up to the third tier of the Italian game with a team that had cost nothing. In itself, it was a prodigious achievement, but what particularly impressed Pavone was the style on which Zeman had built his success.

As fate would have it, one of the final games of the season pitted Zeman’s Licata side against Foggia. For the on-looking Casillo, it was be the perfect opportunity to gauge the qualities of the man he’d just been recommended. In the end, Licata lost by four goals yet Casillo was still left with plenty to think about. In particular, he had been impressed by the aggressive and exciting manner with which Zeman’s young team played and by their energy that rarely seemed to waiver throughout the ninety minutes.

That summer, having spent a couple of weeks mulling over the decision, he informed Pavone that he could go and get the man he’d suggested. Zeman was Foggia’s new manager and the second, pivotal, man in the club’s history had arrived.


Difficult Start


Whilst there was now a new manager in place, only a handful of players were contracted to the club, so the early days witnessed a scramble to sign new players. This hastily assembled squad tried to follow Zeman’s instructions and his unique style of playing – remember that this was before Arrigo Sacchi had made zonal marking and intensive pressing game the hallmark of his dominant AC Milan side – but the quality wasn’t there.

Casillo, however, was pleased enough with his choice and unlike many other chairmen was happy to give his man the time he needed to mould the team. And then, unexpectedly, Zeman was gone.

The story of what happened is a muddled one but at the heart of it was Casillo learning that his manager had gone out to eat with some Parma officials. Infuriated by the thought that the man in whom he had put so much faith was about to betray him, he sacked him. “It is the same as finding out that your wife is cheating on you,” he later justified his actions. “What do you do? You tell her to leave.”

Zeman always denied that he was “cheating” on Casillo yet, a few weeks later, he was indeed put in charge of Parma, replacing the Milan-bound Sacchi.

His stay there was a brief one, though he did manage to beat Real Madrid in a pre-season friendly. Soon he was back in Sicily, taking over at Messina and making his mark there for his attacking football that was spearheaded by Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci, scorer of 23 goals that convinced Juventus to take a punt on him.


Return to Foggia


Things had turned out well for Foggia too and under the tutelage of Giuseppe Carramanno, they had gained promotion to the Serie B. Still, Casillo kept thinking of Zeman and the enthralling football that he espoused. Having forgiven him for his transgression, he eventually convinced him to return.

Again, the start wasn’t as happy as either man had hoped and the fault lay once more with players struggling to assimilate Zeman’s tactics. At that point the fans weren’t as enamoured by their manager as the owner was and they couldn’t see why he was being kept on. Pressure was mounting and a game at Monza became crucial. Defeat, the rumours said, and Zeman would be history for the second time. But Foggia didn’t lose – a young striker by the name of Beppe Signori pounced on a sloppy back pass to guarantee a draw – and the manager remained.

That draw proved to be the turning point; from then on results began to improve and were about to get even better the following season. Zemanlandia was born.




Foggia ran away with the league, swatting aside teams with their attacking style of play. In the end they finished the season six points ahead of second placed Verona (this at a time when it was still two points for a win) having scored 67 goals; nineteen more than any other promoted side. In a league where defences ruled, Foggia were from another planet.

The team had been assembled by Pavone’s wise ability to see value in a player where others didn’t. At the end of it all, the direttore sportivo is as important in Foggia’s story as both Casillo and Zeman.

Signori was brought in for a sizeable fee despite having scored just suffered relegation from the Serie B with Piacenza in a season where he had scored just five times. Indeed, Signori was having something of a crisis of confidence about his abilities but this ended as soon as he met Zeman. “Welcome, bomber” he recalls of that initial meeting. “He had more confidence in me than I had myself. It was a great feeling.”

Alongside Signori in attack during that promotion season was Roberto Rambaudi, another new addition who had spent the previous two years in the C1 with Perugia. The third member of Foggia’s deadly strike-force was Francesco Baiano, a Neapolitan striker who had dreamed of playing alongside Maradona but who always found that the club preferred others to him, sending him on loan year after year until he made the permanent move to Foggia.

The other player that would play a crucial role in Zeman’s system and who was masterfully spotted by Pavone was Francesco Mancini. Given the aggressive pressing and high defensive line that Zeman demanded, he needed a goalkeeper who wasn’t simply a good shot-stopper but also had the speed and presence of mind to sweep up behind his defenders. Just 19 when he joined Foggia, he quickly became a regular – he was already there when they won promotion from the C1 – and was then ably nurtured by Zeman. Mancini could perform his role to perfection, making him one of the first sweeper-keepers; an oddity in football of that era but ultimately a pioneer of a new way of playing that role.

Very little changed upon promotion with the exception of the introduction of foreign players that at the time were only allowed in Serie A. As before, Foggia went for quality at a reduced price and, at Zeman’s prompting, brought in three players from Eastern Europe: Igor Shalimov, Igor Kolyvanov and Dan Petrescu.

Zeman refused to alter his methods of coaching that pushed players to the limit. Long distance running with players carrying weights was a regular feature as he looked to ensure that he had the fittest players in the league. It worked too, despite Foggia not having any training facilities.

Most of the time all they had was a rudimentary playing pitch at a nearby youth club and this wasn’t even always available, forcing Foggia’s Serie A stars to train in the parking area outside their stadium. Another of Zeman’s favoured training methods was having players run up and down the terracing of the Pino Zaccheria stadium.

All of this physical work was necessary for Zeman’s systems to work. A devotee of the 4-3-3 system with zonal marking and pressing all over the pitch, having players whose stamina could keep them running for the ninety minutes and beyond was essential. It also required players who were hungry for an opportunity and willing to do whatever it took to make the most of it. It is why, perhaps, Zeman has been so successful at helping players fulfil their potential, sometimes seeing in them abilities that not even the players themselves were aware of.




It was these supremely fit players, as well as his unique style of play, that he unleashed on the ultra-conservative Serie A. And the results were spectacular; an unflinching belief in attacking play that no side had ever shown before, not even Sacchi’s teams. In total they scored 58 goals – the second highest in the league following league winners AC Milan – often shocking teams with the ferocity and intensity of their pressing.

The way that they hounded opponents for the ball was relentless, pioneering a way of playing that was a couple of decades ahead of its time. Add to it the compact Pino Zaccheria stadium that was routinely packed with passionate, bouncing fans, and they were all the more mesmerizing.

Inter were held to a draw at the San Siro on the opening day of the season while later on that season they drew 4-4 with Atalanta and beat Verona 5-0. Four days from the end of the season, they were still in with a chance to qualify for Europe but a home defeat against Napoli killed off those hopes.

Even so it had been a phenomenal season. Promoted clubs, especially small provincial ones, simply didn’t do what Foggia had just done. They were cautious and timid; they knew their place in the hierarchy. Not Foggia, and certainly not Zeman


New Challenge


There is an inherent laziness in football where it is immediately assumed that it is the players who are the main reason for any success. So it was with Foggia, and the bigger clubs quickly set about tearing it up.

Despite Casillo’s protestations, where he claimed that “I’m not here to sell players, I’m here to make the team even stronger,” that summer Signori left for Lazio, Shalimov joined Inter, Fiorentina got Francesco Baiano and Roberto Rambaudi went to Atalanta. A year later it was Petrescu’s turn to leave when he moved to Genoa. The side had been gutted. In truth, Zeman hadn’t protested too much; he knew that these players were now worth more than Foggia could ever pay them.

All that was left for Pavone and Zeman to do was to go out and discover new players to replace those who had left. And they did, largely by once more scouring the lower leagues.

Inevitably, the new season started poorly with five defeats in the opening seven games. Once again tensions were high, reaching the point where fans broke into the stadium at night and vandalised the pitch. By the end of the first round they were two points off the relegation zone but slowly the team started to find its feet. The players weren’t as good as those that had left during the summer, but time had seen them absorb Zeman’s lessons and start playing as the team had a year earlier.

The following season it got even better. Thanks to the goals of Bryan Roy, who had arrived from Ajax, and the maturation of the likes of future Italian internationals Gigi Di Biagio and Giovanni Stroppa they began to weave their magic once more. Their play was as aggressive and dynamic as ever, even if the goals for was slightly lower.

Ultimately, however, they couldn’t improve on the ninth place finish achieved two years earlier. There was even the bitterness of a final day defeat – to Napoli, once more – that denied them an historic qualification to the UEFA Cup. The dream was over. Casillo was arrested, accused of corruption and dealing with the camorra, but more than that, Zeman had decided that he had taken the club as far as possible with Foggia.

Even so, what he had achieved in those five years at Foggia would never be forgotten nor would it be repeated. The players he managed to mould into stars and the fearless style of play could only have been achieved by Zdeněk Zeman. Zemanlandia at Foggia was over. But, thanks to the achievements of that team, football came alive to the possibilities of what an ambitious, attacking team could do, regardless of size and players. Through that belief, Zemanlandia will never be over.

By Paul Grech. Follow @paul_grech

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